By Rep. Darrio Melton
This week, we took a day out of our schedules to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a tireless advocate for socioeconomic justice and equal rights at a time of tremendous upheaval in our nation’s history. Dr. King shared his dream with America and empowered us to continue moving the bar forward, never accepting less than fair and equal representation for all people.
Yet in 2016, almost 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we still face tremendous socioeconomic and political disparities in our state and in our nation.
We have a prison system that incarcerates Black men at a rate six times that which it incarcerates white men. We have an economic system that pays women 77 cents for every dollar men earn doing the same job, and that rate is even less for women of color. We have a system of public education that offers access and opportunity to children from wealthy families while leaving children from low-income families far behind their peers.
Dr. King warned us about all of this, and he told us that we have the responsibility to fix it. We’re working hard in the Legislature, but we have to do more–and the best way we can do that is by empowering underrepresented groups to seek public office and speak for those who need a voice.
As Dr. King told us, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” There are good people across this state who have a passion for public service who feel disenfranchised from the political process.
How do we expect things to change when the Office of the President of the United States has historically been 98 percent white and 100 percent male? Our Supreme Court is 78 percent white and two-thirds male. In Congress? Only 19 percent are women, despite the fact that women make up roughly half the US population. For people of color, the statistics are worse: only 8 percent of members of Congress are African American and only 7 percent are Hispanic or Latino. The average age of Representatives in the House is 57, and in the Senate it’s 62.
The numbers are shameful, and the American people need better representation in all levels of government, because the American people are not entirely comprised of 60-year-old white males. We all succeed when we bring a diversity of perspectives to the table: our cultural, racial, socio-economical and personal histories make us who we are–the American people.
So consider this me formally asking our women, young people, and people of color: Run for office.
Speak up for the people who need your voice, because the voices of those who wish to hold back progress ring louder in your silence. Speak up because you know that our children shouldn’t be measured by where they come from, but where they want to go. Speak up because our wives deserve equal pay for equal work and our sons deserve a future outside of a prison fence.
The time is always right to do what is right, and it’s time to speak up and keep moving towards Dr. King’s dream.
Rep. Darrio Melton is a Democrat from Selma. He was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 2010 and currently serves as the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus.