01/20/2013 11:46 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2013

Reflecting On the Past, Striving for the Future

As we commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., our nation both reflects on the past and ponders the future. When we think about the past, we remember: the jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama; the brutal beating of John Lewis on that dreadful Bloody Sunday; the vicious assault on voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hammer; the assassination of Medgar Evers and Dr. King himself; the courageous Fred Shuttlesworth who braved beatings, bombings and hosings; the Freedom Riders who traveled through the dangerous South on a quest for equality; and many other moments from our nation's darkest days.

These days transformed our future and brought victories we continue to enjoy today. The triumphs included groundbreaking legislative achievements such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial discrimination in employment practices and public accommodations; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banning literacy tests and empowering the federal government to oversee elections in states with racially discriminatory voting practices; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 which prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.

These major accomplishments were monumental and changed the course of a generation. Yet as we commemorate the legislative victories, the heroism, commitment and sacrifice, I am reminded of the work that remains.

In "The Other America," a speech Dr. King gave at Stanford University on April 14, 1967, he reflected on the issues that continued to stifle progress:

"But we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It's more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality. And it's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It's much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality."

Nearly 44 years after his death, in many ways we are still striving for "genuine equality." In my work as a civil rights litigator and racial justice advocate, I see it in the lack of high quality educational opportunities for children of color and their disparate graduation rates. I see it also in the mass incarceration of people of color that starts with the push outs and criminalization of youth of color by their schools. Handcuffed and hauled off to jail for minor misbehavior such as talking back in class, throwing spitballs, or violating the dress code, young students of color find themselves funneled into a school to prison pipeline, which puts them on a pathway to prison instead of college or career.

We enter another year with immigrants feeling the burden of a broken immigration system. Immigrant families are deprived of basic civil and human rights in states that have rushed to criminalize them. As a result, families who came to our great country in search of a better life are living a nightmare.

The fight for equality continues even around the fundamental right to vote, as millions of people with past felony convictions are denied voting rights even after they've completed their sentences. In Virginia, one in five Blacks cannot vote because of these laws. Although these are citizens who live and work in our communities, pay taxes, and are often trying to rebuild their lives, four states still go to the extreme, antiquated measure of banning them from the voting booth for life.

And despite the gains that Dr. King's generation made to protect voting rights for all, we are still pushing back against new rollbacks on the franchise -- with voters of color, again, being disproportionately impacted. Whether its tight new restrictions on the type of ID that voters can use, purges of voter rolls based on flawed suspicion of citizenship status, or cuts to early voting days and hours, the fight for fair, equal access to the ballot continues.

So as we reflect on historic victories this Martin Luther King Day, in his tradition I also encourage this country to remain focused on the work of today's civil rights agenda. From his same 1967 speech, today I remember his words:

"Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right."