- - Friday, August 30, 2013

This week, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. King’s speech ranks alongside the Declaration of Independence and Emancipation Proclamation as one of the most important expressions of American values and aspirations in our history. The marchers and activists of that era battled unspeakable odds to turn the nation’s eyes toward the plight of blacks in America. King reminded us then, and reminds us today, of the power of civil disobedience — in changing minds, changing hearts and, ultimately, changing the law.

There will always be the laws of men. But King showed us that there is sometimes a higher calling, a duty to one’s nation and God that requires resisting conventional standards or laws. In his letter from a Birmingham jail, King wrote:

“There is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.”

Many in the political establishment considered King an “agitator” and “rabble rouser,” and some even considered him akin to a terrorist. The government spied on him. Agents wiretapped his phone. We do not have to imagine what kind of treatment a figure like King would receive from a government that thought it could deny constitutional protections to its citizens, because he already lived it. Unfortunately, countless black Americans of his generation lived it.

When one sees an injustice so great, he must make a choice — to continue tolerating the injustice or make sacrifices in the name of stopping it. Thankfully for us, King chose the path less traveled.

It is simply unimaginable to think of what kind of America we might be living in today if not for his courage and triumph.

King’s dream of racial equality has come a long way, but inequalities still exist that can’t be ignored. Too many Americans are trapped in a public education system that does not do our children justice. We have a system in which politicians and bureaucrats have too much control, parents have too little, and students’ needs are not being met. Our children have so much potential, but their natural skills and talents are often ignored. Their true potential is not being realized.

Everywhere it is tried, school choice has allowed parents to give their children the education they deserve. Voucher and charter school programs that allow public education dollars to follow the student are greatly improving their performance and giving children so many opportunities. The Wall Street Journal noted in 2010 that 2,000 of our nation’s 20,000 high schools produce roughly 50 percent of all dropouts. Black children have a 50-50 chance of attending one of these schools. Compare these statistics to Washington, D.C., where a Stanford University study showed that 41 percent of students who attend charter schools learned the equivalent of 72 days more in reading and 101 days more in math each year than similar students attending district schools.

Our children deserve better — they deserve a choice in education. A pastor friend of mine in Kentucky has called school choice the civil rights issue of our day. He’s right.

Another injustice is the abomination known as mandatory minimum sentencing, in which judges are forced to give draconian sentences to nonviolent first-time offenders via federal mandate. Many Americans have had to serve prison sentences longer than murderers and other violent criminals simply because they made a mistake with drugs, usually in their youth. These laws have disproportionately affected minorities who often don’t have the legal or financial means to fight back.

I was glad when Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. recently announced the Obama administration’s intention to reverse some of these laws, and I have introduced legislation that gives judges more discretion in sentencing.

While drugs continue to harm our society, aspects of the federal war on drugs continue to unfairly target the black community. The American Civil Liberties Union has reported that blacks nationwide are four times as likely as whites to be arrested for marijuana possession, even though marijuana use is about the same for black and white Americans. Why? Because federal dollars are doled out to precincts according to arrest quotas. Minority communities often become easier targets than the suburbs, where marijuana use is just as prevalent.

There is no excuse for drug abuse, but there is also no excuse for federally subsidizing the increased arrest rates of blacks for committing the same crimes for which their white counterparts do not get punished.

I want to see less drug use. I also want to see equal justice. I want to see fewer nonviolent criminals incarcerated.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, and we’ve unquestionably made great strides toward equality. However, we still have injustices that must be addressed.

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