Three days before he stood atop the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered one of the most momentous speeches in the history of the Republic, Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on the NBC interview program “Meet the Press,” during which he laid out his vision for a colorblind society.
It is worth recalling the remarks the much-revered civil rights leader uttered to a national television audience in 1963 as tens of thousands of celebrants gather in the nation’s capital to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Under questioning from a panel of journalists, Dr. King declared that the black population had “waited for well now 345 years for our basic constitutional and God-given rights.”
He also lamented that, 100 years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which outlawed the continued enslavement of blacks, the descendants of those whom the Great Emancipator set free remained “at the bottom of the economic ladder.”
Before the nation would see the end of the racial unrest witnessed in 1963, “the Negro’s demand for equality must be approximated,” said Dr. King, if not totally fulfilled. That meant “the barriers of segregation must be removed,” he told his interviewers, as well as the equally malignant “barriers of discrimination.”
It all seemed a dream to Dr. King, as he stood before a throng of more than 200,000 on that historic August day in 1963. And, were he alive today, we imagine he would take a certain pride in the considerable progress the black population has made on multiple fronts since the March on Washington.
Indeed, to mark the milestone anniversary of what the New York Times in 1963 described as “the greatest assembly for a redress of grievances that (the) capital has ever seen,” the U.S. Census Bureau released a report last week that reminds us of the fruits of the civil rights movement.
In 1966, 42 percent of blacks lived in poverty. By 2011, the black poverty rate had fallen to 28 percent. In 1964, the black median income was $22,266 (in 2011 dollars). By 2011, it had risen to $40,465. In 1964, 4 percent of blacks were college graduates. By 2012, 21 percent blacks of boasted college diplomas.
In 1970, there were fewer than 1,500 black elected officials. By 2011, there were roughly 10,500. That included the occupant of the highest office in the land, President Barack Obama. His historic election in 2008 truly was the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream in 1963 of “a day when people will not be judged by the color of the skin, but by the content of their character.”
That’s not to say that the “demand for equality” Dr. King enunciated a half-century ago has been fully realized. But we respectfully disagree with the 27 percent of blacks who, according to a poll released last week by the Pew Research Center, say America has made little or no progress toward racial equality since the 1963 March on Washington.
We suspect the decidedly downcast respondents to the Pew poll confused equal opportunity with equal result. For instance, black and white high school graduates have an equal opportunity today to enroll in the college of their choice. But once they are in the classroom, there is no guarantee of equal results. Their grades are determined by their individual initiative.
Now, we are under no illusion that, in 2013, racial bias has been entirely eliminated throughout this fair land. But we also think it self-evident that segregation and discrimination are no longer impenetrable barriers to upward mobility for the vast majority of the black population.
That is something Americans of all races can celebrate as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the March of Washington.
The Orange County Register