opinion Newport Rhode Island

The author, Harold M. Metts, is a state senator representing District 6 in Providence.

When Martin Luther King gave his famous address on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, he memorably said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

That creed enumerated in the Declaration of Independence was more than just a statement of beliefs — it was a promise to the people of the United States of America. And it’s taken an awfully long time to fulfill that promise. Racism has had a stranglehold on this country from colonial times. It’s woven into the very fabric of the Republic. It’s been so violent and pervasive that it’s been the reason for lynchings, beatings and murder. It was even the catalyst of America’s bloodiest war.

But once in a while we take a baby step forward, and when that happens, it’s cause for rejoicing. The step forward that I have the honor to witness is the appointment of Melissa Long to the Rhode Island Supreme Court — the first person of African descent to serve on that august body. I have the further honor of voting in favor of her confirmation in the state Senate.

I want everyone to understand why that’s so important. It’s because the highest court in the state will have someone with a shared experience with a good portion of the citizens of this state, who fully comprehends the plight of minorities in more than just an abstract way. For too long people of color were expected to participate civically in the workings of this democracy without having the slightest say in its laws or policymaking. Granted a handful of people of color, such as myself, now serve in the General Assembly; and we have a say in how the laws are made. But now we have someone on the Supreme Court who will have a say in how those laws are interpreted. For people of color, that means so much, it cannot be overstated.

From the beginning, we’ve followed its laws and fought in its wars. We’ve lived, labored, loved and died here while being relegated to subservient status in society. We’ve been virtually ignored by the authorities and pushed into segregated slums where we were barely afforded the necessities of life.

Unless you’ve lived through that, unless your ancestors have had to endure those hardships, you can never truly understand it. Anything that approaches it is just metaphor.

That’s why we rejoice with and for Judge Long. And the people of Rhode Island should rejoice too, because she brings a world of experience and legal talent to the high court that will be a great and ongoing benefit to the judicial system of this state.

And it’s not just Judge Long. This round of judicial appointments includes other minorities, such as Elizabeth Ortiz, the first Latina to serve as a Family Court judge. It also marks the first time that the state’s Supreme Court will have a majority of women. All of that, coupled with the people’s decision to remove “plantations” from the state’s name, is cause for rejoicing.

It is so encouraging, uplifting and gratifying to see that those in authority — as well as the people as a whole — are finally starting to open their eyes and understand what we’ve been telling them all along and what we’ve been asking for.

It’s fitting that this appointment is happening just before Christmas, because I’m reminded of Isaiah’s prophecy about Christ’s birth: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Today, I’m proud to be a Rhode Islander.

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