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Rev. King’s call for social justice, equality for all, still resounds | Opinion

Senator Sandra Cunningham | January 17, 2021 | Star-Ledger |


Two months before his assassination, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a memorable address that has come to be known as his “Drum Major” sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. During the sermon, Rev. King warned against ambition and extolled the biblical virtues of humility and service to others.

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

As the New Jersey Legislature continues to support Reverend King’s calls for justice, righteousness and equality more than 50 years later, we can be certain that even during these uncertain times, Reverend King would have continued to beat the slow but steady drum for peace, righteousness and social justice. While the tumultuous protests this summer represent what King characterized as the language of the unheard, we have done our best to hear their cries and to advance legislation to address the deeply ingrained systemic issues plaguing our nation.

In the last decade, the New Jersey Senate has been a national leader on criminal justice policy, passing a series of reforms, including legislation to put an end to mandatory minimum sentences. We have remained committed to making strides regarding social justice, taking on new urgency following each murder of an unarmed Black and brown individual. Indeed, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last summer highlighted the need to further evaluate and investigate how we conduct our policing in New Jersey and led to the enactment of additional police reform.

The proposed repeal of mandatory minimum sentences covers a wide range of non-violent crimes, including drug offenses that have disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic communities. Such meaningful sentencing reform is long overdue. If we are ever going to reverse the harmful effects of mass incarceration we must move away from doling out lengthy sentences for minor offenses. We believe this legislation is the first step toward realizing that goal.

The New Jersey Legislature will continue our efforts to realize Rev. King’s goals, as we face critical challenges, both as a nation and as a state. While there is much work to be done, we should remember that these issues are not simply about divisions concerning race, poverty or housing in our communities. As a democratic state, we will continue to advance reforms that will create a more just and humane society.

New Jersey has made incredible strides on criminal justice reform over the past decade, including landmark bail reformexpungement legislation, the “ban the box” law and juvenile justice protections. These reforms, including our legislation to end marijuana prohibition, which has been discriminatory toward young Black and brown residents since its inception, are long overdue. These significant pieces of legislation reflect on what Reverend King tirelessly advocated for in his short time on this earth, and up until the time of his death.

In addition, the Legislature passed an independent prosecutor bill 18 months ago that requires the state attorney general to supersede county prosecutors in any death investigation involving law enforcement officers and requires any ensuing trial to take place in a county other than where the incident took place. The general sentiment among many in the Black community that officers are never held accountable in the shooting death of a Black man underscores the importance of this legislation; these killings have been prevalent and well-documented, dating back to the height of the Civil Rights movement that Reverend King led and all too often officers have faced no repercussions for their actions.

Of course, Reverend King was also about practical economic relief for the poor, and workers’ rights in pursuing social and economic justice. In his last years, he led a prolonged campaign to bring equitable and affordable housing to minority communities in Chicago, and elsewhere, and in the last weeks of his life he launched his “Poor Peoples Campaign,” and fought valiantly for sanitation workers in Memphis who had been severely underpaid and had been forced to work dangerous jobs with little protection or regard for their health and well-being.

Finally, in the spirit of that noble pursuit of justice for all, regardless of skin color, ethnicity, religion or gender or sexual preference, let us recall on this holiday the plain words from Reverend King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he states, without ceremony, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly …”