Fifty years ago, at the Lincoln Memorial, during the dog days of summer, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of more than 250,000 and to the world. The speech and the moment have become legendary in American history.
If we were to revisit that time, a place when racial strife dominated the news, when blacks marched for freedom, for equality and against injustice, we would see a nation in struggle and turmoil.
King was a great orator whose remarkable deep voice and intonation captivated his audience. He spoke of black America’s plight at the time. Despite the hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks were still not free, shackled by the “manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” as King said. His portrait of America then was not pretty. But his hope for a dream was inspirational.
We can’t help but wonder what King would think of America today. Remember this speech was before radical change. In the past 50 years, there have been a lot of black firsts: first black astronaut, first billionaire, secretary of state and, yes, the first black president. Would King be happily astonished at the progress blacks in America have made? Would he think his dream has been realized?
We don’t know, but we suspect King would still find a lot of things wrong with the state of blacks in America and race relations today.
King spoke of a check from the bank of justice that blacks were owed. He said 1963 was not an end but a beginning. He was right. Blacks now have more equality and opportunity than anyone in the 1960s could have imagined. But with change also came the breakdown of the family, inner-city crime and a sense of entitlement that has permeated our nation, not just for blacks but many who are born, live and die on welfare. King wanted equal access to jobs and education. What he would think of the welfare state should be obvious.
King also spoke of brotherhood. He dreamed of unity and a nation where his children could walk hand in hand with other children, “free at last.” When President Barack Obama was elected, many thought that racism was on its knees. They were wrong. Institutional racism has been massively curtailed, but the numbers of hate groups have actually increased. The Southern Poverty Law Center tracks extremist groups and cites that these groups, including armed militias, have grown 813 percent since Obama was elected — from 149 in 2008 to 1,360 in 2012. Instead of unity, we have more division.
High-profile cases like the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin encounter accentuate the racial divide that is such a large part of America. That is the stark reality.
Poverty also continues in the black community. Since the end of the recession, the Census Bureau reports, median income for non-Hispanic white households is $58,000, and it is $33,500 for non-Hispanic black households. The educational divide is just as wide as the economic divide. Although 80 percent of blacks older than 25 have a high school diploma and 18 percent an advanced degree, Census figures show this is 10 percent below the national average.
So the nation has moved forward, but the struggle and turmoil are still with us. But we don’t have the luxury to just dwell in the negative.
King envisioned an America that held promise and hope for all races. He said, “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
King was a forward thinker; we must focus on the possibilities for positive change. We should remember his words and look toward the next 50 years. There will be more change, most of which we cannot predict. How can we as a nation come together to make progress toward King’s dream? A dream that the next generation will fashion. That’s the question for Americans today.
The Colorado Springs Gazette