January 16, 2023

Dr. King's Legacy: Learning From Our Policy Past to Shape Our Future

Photo credit: "Boca Raton M L King memorial" by Infrogmation is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This is an updated version of a blog originally published in January 2019.

The Road to Passage of the Civil Rights Act

In the spring of 1964, the Civil Rights Act had stalled in the U.S. Senate, and the prospect of its passage was all but certain. Sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations were widespread across the segregated South, including in Florida. In St. Augustine, local protestors had been met with violence by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and local organizers reached out to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for assistance.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy in St. Augustine, Florida. Photo by: Florida Memory

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and other SCLC leadership came to Florida at that juncture not only to support local efforts, but to keep the national spotlight on the grave injustices heaped upon the civil rights demonstrators and pressure Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act. After marching with local protestors and demonstrating at the centuries-old historic slave market, Dr. King was arrested on the steps of the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine on June 11, 1964. A day before, the filibuster in the Senate had finally been broken. Eight days later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, which banned public segregation and employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

Click here to view a video of St. Augustine civil rights demonstrations

Dr. King’s legacy urges us to shine a light on discrimination and to actively dismantle disparate treatment of not only people of color, but other groups that have historically been left out of the American Dream. In the year before he was assassinated, Dr. King embraced the fight for economic justice and united poor peoples of all colors in the Poor People’s Campaign. “We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that is signed years ago,” he said in his last Sunday sermon before he was killed. “And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”

Dr. King’s legacy urges us to shine a light on discrimination and to actively dismantle disparate treatment of not only people of color, but other groups that have historically been left out of the American Dream.

Building Awareness of Our Policy Past

The passage of the Civil Rights Act represented a historic step toward removing barriers to economic mobility for people of color. Throughout our country’s history, measures aimed at dismantling discriminatory laws and regulations have benefitted everyday Americans of all races and ethnicities; conversely, those measures favoring a wealthy few — outsized corporate tax breaks, for example — siphon taxpayer dollars away from public schools, affordable housing, and other public services that help families and communities thrive.

Florida Policy Institute (FPI) recently unveiled a new multimedia initiative, The Florida Timeline, to build awareness around our state’s shared history; namely, how our policy past has driven disparate outcomes by race and ethnicity and continues to impede Floridians’ quality of live. For example, the Florida Timeline explains how tax policy decisions made in the early 1900s that benefitted “wealthy and predominantly white residents” have thwarted Floridians’ prosperity and worsened race and income inequities far into the 21st century.

In fact, today, Florida has one of the most inequitable tax systems in the nation, ranking 48th among all states. Families of all races and ethnicities in Florida with wages under $86,800 receive just 34.4 percent of statewide income, yet they pay 53.2 percent of statewide taxes, according to a recent FPI report. (See Fig. 1.) The same analysis shows that Black and Latina/o Floridians pay more in taxes than white Floridians when comparing the share of total taxes paid to share of total state income by race and ethnicity. (See Fig. 2.)

Dr. King’s fight against racist policies and for human dignity made its way through Florida at a critical time during the national debate on the Civil Rights Act. Today, his legacy and the legacy of those Floridians that demonstrated alongside him for civil rights exhort us all to continue their fight.

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