Honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of fighting to improve democracy by approving the Washington Voting Rights Act.

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MARTIN Luther King Jr.embodied the mighty ideals of equality, human rights and courage that are as vital to America now as ever.

Sadly, many of the societal problems King fought to change a half-century ago persist today — just in different renditions.

In the past, discrimination was blatant: signs on restaurants declaring no service for blacks or Mexicans, a segregated school system that favored white children and Jim Crow laws in the South. Not too long ago, banks and real-estate agents barred people of color from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or cities.

Today people of color are wrongly denied prime interest rates for mortgages and disproportionately targeted for predatory loans. The quality of schools across the nation is largely defined by real-estate values and ZIP codes. People of color and women are vastly underrepresented in elected offices and corporate boardrooms.

Remembering MLK

Teachers: The Seattle Times’ Newspapers in Education program has prepared a variety of activities that look at Dr. King’s philosophy: Lesson plan | Study guide | Quiz | Resources

Under Our Skin

What does ‘institutional racism’ mean? We asked 18 people to discuss terms about race. View the project.  

When King was assassinated in 1968, he had traveled to Memphis to support black sanitation workers who demanded pay, working conditions and rights equal to their white counterparts.

King tackled the nation’s monumental challenges by battling smaller issues, plights of everyday people, which could lead to incremental change. That example is still relevant.

Take the Washington Voting Rights Act. The proposal gives voters and cities a tool to fix the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities in elected government positions. For instance, positions that are elected citywide give more sway to the majority. That scenario played out for years in Yakima, a Central Washington city that is about 40 percent Latino. White candidates regularly shut out Latino candidates in primary and general elections.

The system left a sizable group of people and swaths of neighborhoods without representation in City Hall — unacceptable in a mature democracy.

The American Civil Liberties Union won a lawsuit against the City of Yakima that forced the city to adopt district elections. That change led to three Latina candidates winning council seats in November. One recently was sworn in as mayor.

The proposed state law would have helped Yakima avoid the legal battle and brought a resolution much faster. The proposal would not force any city to adopt district elections or elect any particular candidate. Rather, it would give voters and cities that face so-called polarized voting a better alternative to making elections more equitable.

The act stalled last year despite House approval and bipartisan support. The state Senate should pass SB 5668 this year.

Improving Washington’s democratic process is a duty that aligns with King’s vision for America.

His legacy demonstrates that while the journey might be slow and at times disheartening, Americans must shake off the status quo and embrace the unrelenting challenge of becoming a more equal, just and exceptional nation.