The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday marks the birthday of an American who sought unity at a time of division and brought hope and healing to this country. It is a day to honor and reflect on the fundamental definition of what these United States of America are: a home for people of all faiths, races, ethnicities, genders, abilities, and persuasions. And it is a day to celebrate each other, to recommit to standing up, not only for what is right for ourselves and for our families, but for what is right for our country, and for the ideals upon which the U.S. was founded—liberty and justice for all.

The Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s legacy had a profound impact on me. As the daughter of parents who believed firmly in the American Dream, I was raised to revere this country for its promise that anyone was free to reach his or her potential. Dr. King fought to make this promise real for all, highlighting the ways in which our nation had to change in order to do so.

His legacy inspired my participation in the women’s and anti-Apartheid movements in college, and my political activity advocating for farm workers across New York State. It moved me to engage with interfaith communities and to speak out against the prejudice our Muslim brothers and sisters face, particularly since 9/11. It shaped how I fight for people who cannot speak for themselves, including my brother who is blind and developmentally disabled, and who face overwhelming challenges and prejudice that undermine their rights as citizens. And it reminds me, each day, to celebrate and protect the rights of my family, my two sons, Nikko and Sam, and of people everywhere, to love whomever they choose.

There is still so much work to do. In a 1967 sermon, Dr. King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?” He called upon us to infuse each day with purpose by exercising the ideals for which this country stands by serving as advocates, not critics, for those who do not benefit. When the President of the United States dismisses entire nations and peoples, it is clear that racism, bigotry and prejudice – the very impediments to American freedom against which Dr. King fought – have gained another foothold. We gain nothing as communities by knocking others down. We gain nothing as individuals by turning our backs on those in need. And we gain everything as a nation when we integrate and empower all who are willing to contribute to our success.

Today and every day across this country, let us build on Dr. King’s legacy of dignity and compassion by embracing those with whom we do not see eye-to-eye, and by defending those less fortunate. And across New York’s 23rd District, let us unite behind the values Dr. King upheld to unlock our communities’ untapped potential and, in doing so, unleash countless new opportunities for us all.

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