Institute President and CEO Ryan Haygood writes for NJ.com
More than 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his final book before his assassination urging us to make the choice between chaos and community. “We are confronted with the urgency of now," he wrote, "…This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”
As we honor his 91st birthday and legacy today, we find ourselves again facing the same stark choice.
Against the backdrop of our chaotic national landscape, it is easy to conclude that the arc of the moral universe is not – in fact – bending toward justice. That racial justice is an empty slogan. And that freedom and liberation are elusive and beyond our grasp.
But as Dr. King knew well, there is indeed a choice on the other side of chaos.
While Dr. King’s impact changed the world, much of his work was local because he knew that community could overcome chaos when people organized themselves around critical issues, were inspired by a vision beyond which the eye could see, were courageous truth-tellers who held people in power accountable, and were willing to sacrifice comfort.
In New Jersey, we are choosing community over chaos. We are not waiting for democracy to trickle down to us from Washington, D.C.
We are building democracy from the ground up. And it’s working.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the slate of policy victories marking New Jersey’s two-year legislative session that ended last week — all a result of communities of people coming together, raising our collective voices, and moving our elected officials to action.
Through our collective advocacy, we achieved passage of historic legislation to restore the fundamental right to vote to 83,000 people — a population greater than our capital city of Trenton —who are on probation and parole. This right was first denied to people with convictions in 1844, the same year the vote was restricted to white men in New Jersey’s Constitution. Thousands of people across New Jersey said it’s time to be 1844 no more.
We stood together to end prison-based gerrymandering -- the modern day “3/5 Clause” that counts the bodies of incarcerated people in the location of the prison facility, instead of their home communities, for the purpose of legislative redistricting, while denying them the right to vote. Once the governor signs this into law, New Jersey will be the seventh state to take this step.
We won a $15 minimum wage to help lift hundreds of thousands of people — in one of America’s wealthiest states — out of poverty, and to address our growing income inequality.
We created a robust apprenticeship program, based on legislation that will help provide a path-way to living wage careers, particularly for people of color and women. We championed an independent prosecutor law to make law enforcement more accountable for misconduct.
All of this remarkable progress was made in one legislative session even as we face one of our darkest national moments.
Dr. King was clear that, even as we celebrate these momentous achievements, the work continues.
Indeed, it was after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, watershed moments in American history, that Dr. King called us toward the beloved community, and urged us to contemplate next steps toward perfecting democracy in America.
Our work continues in New Jersey to build a system to ensure that people of color live in a society that respects their humanity.
To transform New Jersey’s shameful youth justice system in which a Black child is 21 times more likely to be locked up than a white child — the highest racial disparity in America — and where only eight white children are in prison, even though Black and white kids commit most offenses at similar rates.
To make our democracy more inclusive, including by restoring voting rights for 19,000 people who are in prison.
And to integrate New Jersey’s classrooms, which are the sixth and seventh most segregated in America for Black and Latino students.
As we honor Dr. King today, we must do more than post inspiring quotes on our social media pages.
We honor Dr. King by following his example of choosing community over chaos. However difficult the national moment, Dr. King summonses each of us to courageously choose community over chaos through our advocacy for solutions to the most pressing social and racial justice issues of our generation.