TAMPA, Fla. — The United States of America has come a long way since our founding and arguably since the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. But, advocates and law enforcement say there is still a lot of work to do.
ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska spoke to three different people, all part of various organizations, all fighting for the same thing, to ensure our civil rights are protected for generations to come.
While community leaders and activists march in parades on MLK Day to honor Dr. King, law enforcement is constantly working behind the scenes.
"There has been an uptick in hate crimes here in our area, but it could be as a result of several factors," Special Agent Susana Mapu said.
Mapu is assigned to the white-collar squad at the FBI Tampa Field Division and is the dedicated civil rights agent. Mapu urges anyone who believes they were the victim of a hate crime or hate speech to report it to the FBI.
The number one priority for the civil rights program at the Federal Bureau of Investigation is hate crimes.
"We are very interested in learning about any incidents; hate incidents are what we call hate crimes. A hate crime is a crime that is solely motivated by somebody's race, religion, gender, identity, disability, family status, et cetera," Mapu said. "It affects a person forever sometimes and then affects an entire community."
Hate crimes are pervasive throughout our society. One of the most extreme cases was the Pulse shooting in Orlando, where 49 innocent people died.
"Mostly LGBTQ people of color were murdered in a space that was supposed to be safe for them. And, and for us, for our organization, that was a galvanizing moment," Brandon Wolf said. Wolf is the Press Secretary for Equality Florida. "That was a moment where we looked inward and asked, How are we combating the tide of hate and bigotry that leads to violence, like what we saw at Pulse."
Equality Florida is the largest civil rights organization dedicated to securing full equality for Florida's lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community, formed in 1997. The nonprofit fights for equality through grassroots organizing, lobbying, education, and building relationships.
"Not only do we have to continue to fight for changes in the laws, but we also have to fight for hearts and minds, not just here in Florida, but around the country," Wolf said. "Because we really, again, can't realize the American dream unless we do the hard work of seeing it as something that we have to share together."
There are so many groups across Florida and the nation working separately but together to achieve their goals.
"And, you would think that we should be in an era where civil rights and human rights are something that is treasured by everyone. And it's kind of scary where we are today, that we're fighting battles that many of our ancestors fought for us when this experiment of democracy of the United States was being created," Mari Corugedo, the VP for Youth at The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) said. "I'm kind of confused; I'm kind of baffled by everything that we have to fight today."
LULAC is the oldest Hispanic membership organization in the U.S., founded in Texas nearly 100 years ago. Corugedo says voting rights are the most important civil rights issue facing our country.
"Because every vote should count. If you cast a vote, and you're registered to vote, and you are voting a voting member of this nation, everyone should be fighting," Corugedo said. "Because what happens if we lose our democracy? What happens? And I think if you ask me, we won't get climate change; we won't get economic justice or anything that we need. Unless we have access to that ballot box, be able to cast a vote, make sure our vote counts, and make sure that no one overturns an election."
On MLK Day, Mapu, Corugedo, and Wolf hold the values and ideals of Dr. King in their hearts and minds.
"He and other brave men and women back in the 60s town, you know, with their help, and their sacrifices have established that this still the statues that we used to they're from the 1960s," Mapu said.
"And I think that's the message that I've always gotten from Martin Luther King that we need to stop, stop, you know, amplifying our differences, but start to look at the things that unite us as Americans," Corugedo said.
"If we're going to push back on this culture of division, this culture of hate and polarization, we have to lean into this idea that we've got to invest in people. It's not about where you come from. It's not about the color of your skin. It's not about the person that you marry. It is about me seeing you as a human being and being willing to invest in making sure that you and I both succeed," Wolf said. "I think if we can move the country into that place if we can, as you said, see each other as people first, the potential is unlimited for what we can accomplish. But we can't get there unless we do the first thing, which is seeing one another as humans."