MOSCOW — Hundreds of Latah County residents and community leaders gathered in Moscow Middle School’s auditorium Saturday for an annual breakfast honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Organizer Joann Muneta, chairwoman of the Latah County Human Rights Task Force, said while the event is now entering its 38th year, it’s as important as ever to uplift and celebrate the ideals championed by King. Addressing the crowd Saturday, Muneta said the work of equal rights activism is never complete.

“We haven’t quite solved all the problems of the world yet,” Muneta said. “What our task force mission is, is to celebrate diversity and inclusion and embrace those concepts — and that’s ongoing, that’s not something you solve, that’s something you continue to enjoy and work for.”

Garrett and Emily Strizich, who were presented with this year’s Rosa Parks Human Rights Achievement Award alongside Monzerath Stark, the University of Idaho’s associate director of multicultural recruitment, echoed Muneta’s sentiment.

The Striziches were central organizers of a successful signature gathering campaign to place statewide Medicaid expansion on Idaho ballots. The movement is now credited with bringing healthcare coverage to 53,000 previously uninsured Idahoans with projections of eventually reaching 91,000. Emily Strizich said at first she felt less than worthy of an award bearing the name of one of the country’s most celebrated civil rights icons, until she spoke to her mother, who told her, “Sometimes you don’t get an award for yourself; you get an award to show other people that this is possible.”

“We knew that no matter what action we took with it, we’d be making a positive change, we’d be moving the ball down the floor,” Emily Strizich said. “I hope if nothing else, today you will see that the impossible is obviously possible, with 53,000 people now having health insurance.”

Voting rights were a central theme of Saturday’s event. In his keynote address, speaker Jeremy Woodson said it would be a mistake to overlook the importance of voting rights to King’s legacy.

Woodson, community engagement manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, pointed out that the 15th Amendment guaranteeing the right to vote to every American regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” was ratified in 1870. However, it took most of a century rife with efforts to stifle the black vote, before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed — in response to direct actions organized by King and others — to enforce this ideal.

“It’s important to understand that while that was a long time ago, 1965, we are still seeing some of the same problems as it relates to voting access, voter intimidation and voter suppression,” Woodson said, noting those affected most acutely by efforts to suppress the vote are people of color, poor people, people with disabilities, students and the elderly. “When we start to launch initiatives to bring more people to the polls (and) to give more access, we need to carry these folks with us, we need to put them at the center of the discussion.”

Voting rights continue to come under attack today, Woodson said. He said an approval process surrounding voter reforms in states with a history of discriminatory practices have been loosened, and in 2019 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts would no longer hear legal challenges to gerrymandering brought on partisan grounds.

After a 2018 voter-approved ballot initiative restored voting rights to 1.4 million Florida residents with past felony convictions, the state Legislature passed a law requiring those would-be voters to pay all fines from the original convictions to be eligible — which Woodson said amounts to a poll tax. He said just last year he saw repeated attempts in the Idaho Legislature to stifle the vote and make bringing citizen initiatives to ballot yet more onerous.

Woodson said to combat these and other attempts to stifle the vote, communities must continue to “think about how we can improve on the roadmap” handed down by King and others as they attempt to create change.

“We will make mistakes, I promise you,” Woodson said, moments before leading the room through the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.” “However, if we start to listen, believe our stories and make sure we are centering the folks that are being mostly impacted ... make sure we’re uplifting the voices of those that for many reasons still have barriers to being able to speak out and speak up — if we do all that, I think we’ll come out better on the other side.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to sjackson@dnews.com.

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