In his last sermon, on the evening before he was shot down outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. offered a conclusion that serves well as starting point for 2018. After declaring that America was sick in 1968, facing troubling times, King made this resolution:
Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. If it means leaving work, if it means leaving school—be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together.
King did not live to see another 24 hours of that pivotal year in American history, but 50 years later we face a similar collective crisis as we begin 2018. Extremists who’ve hijacked the Republican Party worked in concert with a charlatan to deconstruct the federal government, but a resistance made itself public in 2017, making clear that we are still the majority in this nation. Congress and many of our state legislatures refuse to represent the will of the majority. In the face of this basic subversion of democracy, we do well to remember that “either we go up together, or we go down together.” King’s assessment is more crucial than ever: Nothing would be more tragic than to turn back now.
Fifty years after Dr. King and many others launched a Poor People’s Campaign to demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor, inequality in our nation has reached extremes we have not seen since the Gilded Age. As the Dow climbs and the wealthiest Americans get a massive tax break, 15 million more Americans are poor today than in 1968. In the same time period, the rate of extreme poverty has nearly doubled. Because of the systemic racism of voter suppression, which has been implemented in 23 of the nation’s poorest states since 2010, our political system is held captive by extremists who deny workers health care and a living wage, undermine the equal-protection clause of the constitution, attack public education, and encourage poor white people to blame people of color and immigrants for their problems. All the while, more and more of our collective resources are dedicated to a war without end.
This is the moral crisis that produced the Trump presidency. Amid daily news about drama in the West Wing, we must not lose sight of the long-term effort to undermine the federal courts, which continues beneath the radar. Any political movement as unpopular as the current administration cannot endure very long, but it is already having an impact on the courts that will last for decades. Remember: Federal judicial appointments are for life. In his first year in office, Trump appointed more judges to the federal bench than his three predecessors combined did in the same time frame.