A Day for Human Rights

kingRemembering From Whence We Came…

It hasn’t been all that many years ago that Idaho was one of the last states to embrace an official celebration of human rights in connection with Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Repeated efforts to establish a state holiday failed in the Idaho Legislature before legislation was finally approved in 1990.

It is important to remember some of the context of those times. The white supremacist Aryan Nations still held court in northern Idaho and the state was regularly depicted in the national media as a haven for the group’s perverted notions of racial superiority. Their annual parades, even when dwarfed in size by those opposing their message of hate, received extensive media attention. Major employers struggled to recruit people of color to live and work in Idaho. Despite having one of the strongest malicious harassment laws in the nation, Idaho’s image was hurting.

I’m convinced the decision to create a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Day in Idaho was a major catalyst in changing the then-prevailing perception.

With the inspired leadership of then-Human Rights Commission Executive Director Marilyn Shuler, human rights activists in northern Idaho and then-Governor Cecil Andrus, the holiday honoring Dr. King came to be 20 years ago – long overdue, but finally in place.

Fast forward to 2010 where the Idaho Legislature now considers a proposal to eliminate state funding for the Idaho Human Rights Commission, an agency that has protected the rights of Idaho workers and employers for more than four decades by leveling the field for both. The Commission has been in many, many ways, the focus in Idaho for a common sense, practical approach to human rights and dignity for all. It is a tiny agency with a huge mission, a mission just as important now as it was in 1990, or when it was created more than 40 years ago.

We’ve all heard of the philosopher George Santayana’s famous observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet, it seems a constant challenge for our public policymakers to remember from whence we came. As our attention spans grow shorter, our memories do as well.

Idaho’s human rights history has traveled a well-worn and rocky path that has steadily – at least since the mid-1980’s – lifted us higher and higher. Republicans like former Governor Phil Batt and current Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones took the issues very seriously back then, as did Democrats like Andrus and Governor John Evans. But it is not a given that we will keep on climbing. A new generation of leaders will need to step forward and keep pushing.

We would do well to consider the message – both practical and symbolic – sent by Idaho if the state appears to be devaluing the work of the Idaho Human Rights Commission. Enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws won’t go away. Rather the federal government will enforce the law in Idaho if the state is left with a less than adequate effort of its own.

All too obviously, much work remains to realize Dr. King’s dream and live out his courage even as his words speak to us as powerfully as ever:

“Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideals hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.”

We are not condemned to repeat the past, we need only to remember it.

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