U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

September 2, 2023

Marching On

Dear Fellow Marylanders.

Sixty years ago Monday, August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of men and women descended on our nation’s capital for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march has become synonymous with Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which he delivered from the steps of the Lincoln memorial and has become a central rallying theme for the civil rights movement. Dr. King was prophetic in his remarks, beginning by saying that the day “will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” To this day, it is the standard by which every other march and rally in Washington is judged.

Had he lived to see what progress has been made, and sometimes lost, six decades later, I am confident that Dr. King would have been uneasy and deeply frustrated that we are still fighting many of the same battles against bigotry and racism, as well as economic repression and hate-fueled gun violence. Yet I am sure he would have leaned into the words he spoke on March 31, 1968, just days before his assassination, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Of course, Dr. King knew that we cannot leave it to fate to bend the arc of the moral universe on its own. We must work together for justice, equality and democracy so that all people in this great nation can be free. As Dr. King said, “all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Labor leader A. Philip Randolph’s opening speech at the march also was explicit in the broad demands of the moment: “We want a free, democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement of man along moral lines.” 

To that end, for many years in the United States Senate, I have been humbled to lead the fight for a number of key civil right measures that would move the arc in the direction of progress. These are basic measures that rebuke the structural racism that has been so deeply ingrained in our legal, social and economic systems for generations. All of these legislative measures have healthy Democratic support but, regrettably, with one exception, they are not yet bipartisan.

  • The End Racial and Religious Profiling Act (ERRPA/S. 1084) would ban discriminatory profiling by federal, state and local law enforcement nationwide. Prohibited behavior would include targeting based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation. This prohibition covers federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies carrying out criminal, immigration, or customs laws. Nothing in this bill would keep law enforcement officers from pursuing suspects based on legitimate descriptions that include race, ethnicity, etc., but the days of targeting groups of people solely on how they look would end.  My legislation was included in the broader George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and I was pleased to see the U.S. Department of Justice recently strengthen their guidance against discriminatory profiling.
  • The Democracy Restoration Act (DRA/S. 1677) would finally end the permanent denial of voting rights nationwide for individuals with criminal convictions who have been released from incarceration. The bill aims to eliminate the complicated patchwork of state laws, many harkening back to the Jim Crow era. The current system exacerbates racial disparities in access to the ballot box and contributes to confusion and misinformation regarding voting rights. In early August, a federal appeals court issued a decision stating that Mississippi’s lifetime ban on voting for individuals convicted of some felonies “violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.” As described by the Brennan Center for Justice, “The remarkable 2–1 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit … will re-enfranchise tens of thousands of people.”  My legislation was included in the broader For the People and Freedom to Vote Act legislation.
  • On voting rights, I joined a bipartisan working group to help pass the Electoral Count Reform Act, to address some of the tactics used to attempt overturn the 2020 election, which led to the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol.  But Congress still needs to take up and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Reauthorization Act, to begin to repair the damage done by the Supreme Court in curtailing the right to vote and exacerbating the use of voter suppression tactics, particularly against minority communities. And I have continued to work with the Biden administration to recommend highly qualified and diverse federal judges for lifetime appointments who believe in equal justice under the law that protects all Americans.
  • The Private Prison Information Act (PPIA/S. 1983) would require that all U.S. government agencies comply with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests relating to private prisons, jails or detention facilities, including immigration detention facilities. This legislation will improve transparency in private facilities and represents an essential step forward in facilitating accountability throughout the American criminal justice system. Analyses have shown that “conditions for inmates in private prisons are inferior to those in state or federal prisons.” It also is clear that that “racial minorities tend to be overrepresented in private prisons” versus federal or state facilities.
  • Congress and the requisite 38 States have ratified the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). My resolution (S.J. Res. 4) would remove an arbitrary time limit that is the final remaining barrier in enshrining the ERA as the 28th amendment to the Constitution. The ERA would serve as a new tool – for Congress, for federal agencies and the courts – to advance equality in the fields of workforce and pay, pregnancy discrimination, sexual harassment and violence, reproductive autonomy, and protections for LGBTQ+ individuals. Earlier this Congress, a bipartisan majority of the Senate voted in favor of this resolution. Every member of the Democratic conference and two Republicans are cosponsors of my ERA resolution.

My life of public service was inspired by my faith, but also by the civil rights movement and elected leaders of the 1960s. I was first elected to Congress in 1986 and sworn into office in January 1987 alongside Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, who would become a lifelong friend and mentor. Years earlier, John was one of the original Freedom Riders and served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was one of the major organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. 

For John, the movement for freedom, justice and equality – economically, socially, and in all aspects of life – was not merely a moment, but his life’s work. As times changed, and as the struggle for equality took on new forms, his commitment never faltered. He marched on Washington, through Selma, and in the halls of the United States Capitol with the same faith, courage and conviction.

This last weekend, tens of thousands gathered on the National Mall, to continue the march for freedom and justice. Harkening back to those who stood on the same ground six decades earlier, Dr. King’s daughter-in-law Arndrea Walters King described the crowd: “We are here to liberate the soul of the nation, the soul of democracy from those forces who would have us all go backwards and perish rather than go forward as sisters and brothers.

President Joe Biden said Monday in an address to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, recalling Dr. King’s reference to a “promissory note” to every American: “[It is] a promise derived from the very idea of America, that we are all created equal and deserve to be treated equally throughout our entire lives. While we’ve never fully lived up to that promise, we’ve never — thank God — fully walked away from it…for our administration and with your help, it means pushing back against voter suppression, election subversion, and hate-fueled violence.”

Standing together, we will defeat the tyranny of hate and oppression. Together, we will bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice. We must.

Thank you for your time. I appreciate your feedback on this and any other topics. Please feel free to reply here or go to my website with your comments. 


Ben Cardin

(A huge thank you to all those Marylanders who joined the March on Washington in D.C. last weekend, as well as those who joined the re-enactment in Annapolis, which was kicked off with the Morgan State Marching Band! The 60th anniversary of this historic march was commemorated across Maryland through meaningful events and activities.)