Fifty-four years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama, for marching in violation of a sweeping circuit court injunction against parading, boycotting, and picketing.
Dr. King’s actions were publicly condemned by white clergy leaders who called the civil rights demonstrations “unwise and untimely.” In the margins of his newspaper and on torn scraps of paper, Dr. King penned a response. Today, his words resonate as strongly – and as grievously – as they did in 1963. He writes, “[The word] ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never’… We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”
Under cascades of criticism and threat of a vindictive law, Dr. King showed up for what’s right–just as he had done before, and as he would time and again after his arrest that day in Birmingham.
At the National Juvenile Defender Center, we see that same tireless devotion to justice in courtrooms across the country, where juvenile defenders show up every day and demand fair proceedings that honor the dignity and goodness of young people. And we see that same special courage of Dr. King’s in the children who refuse to give up hope, even when those in positions of authority may try to shame and diminish their worth.
As one year folds into the next – and as we tread into this new era of uncertainty – the word “despair” is peppered across news headlines. But as a community of defenders, we must pledge not to go back and not to be deterred. We will wake up, show up, and fight another day.
This January, the National Juvenile Defender Center’s Gault at 50 Campaign is honoring youth who are disparately harmed in the juvenile court system; youth who face prejudice and discrimination because they look, pray, speak, or love differently than the people who hold the reins of power. While decades of persistence and hard work have won gains in juvenile justice reform, our legal system continues to disparage and harm its most vulnerable children.
For too long this country’s policies have allowed black and brown children to be arrested in low-income communities and rounded up for behavior that is allowed in white affluent communities. For too long this country has turned a blind eye to the sexual and physical abuse of LGBTQ children in prison facilities. And for too long it has ignored exhaustive data that shows removing children from their homes, schools, and neighborhoods is an expensive and ineffective response to youth behavior.
Justice too long delayed is justice denied. In the New Year and in the face of new challenges, we will carry with us the words of Dr. King and continue the marathon work of ending the injustices heaped upon youth. We hope you will stay with us, join our team, and support our efforts in mustering every bit of courage and creativity to heed the lessons of history and champion what is right.
We cannot ask children to wait for justice.
Mary Ann Scali