After the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963, his wife, Coretta Scott King, said: “It seemed as if the Kingdom of God appeared.”
But, she added later, “It only lasted a moment.”
Still resonant today as the country prepares to recognize what would have been Dr. King’s 73rd birthday, the “Dream” speech layers metaphor with straight talk, ending in a rhythmic crescendo calling for freedom, brotherhood, equality.
Children and world leaders can recite passages with equal ease. Ranked among the greatest pieces of oratory ever delivered, the speech is seen as the purest distillation of the struggle and promise of civil rights.
So much of what King envisioned in the speech has been realized; so much of what he deplored still exists.
While African Americans have made innumerable advances since the 1960s, many of the hopes expressed in Dr. King’s speech – to lead impoverished African Americans off their “lonely island of poverty” and out of racist “exile” – remain unfulfilled today, observers say.
“Dr. King would have said we still have work to do,” said Gayle Pemberton, professor of African American studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Despite a burgeoning black middle class, a “black underclass as alienated and marginalized as in 1963” exists throughout America, said Jack Levin, who runs a center on violence at Boston’s Northeastern University.
To be sure, America today is a world of black CEOs and surgeons, thriving African American campuses, and the ubiquitous sight of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
Whites see this and say all is well. Blacks shake their heads and wonder if they’re living on the same planet.
In a 2000 Gallup Poll, 10 percent of white Americans said blacks are treated less fairly than whites on the job. But 47 percent of blacks feel that way.
It’s the same story when it comes to the treatment of black people by police, by waiters, by theater ushers: African Americans say they deal with a basic unfairness invisible to whites.
No longer embedded in law as it was in Dr. King’s day, racism still thrives. While it’s publicly condemned, it remains fundamentally unchanged, like plastic in a garbage dump, intact despite the passage of time.
“Injustices that were overt are now covert,” said the Rev. Alyn Waller, pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Germantown, Pa. “We’ve come a long way, with a long way to go. This country has not reached what Dr. King saw in his vision.”
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
In 1994, scholar Charles Murray argued that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites.
Since then, there’s been a “significant” rise in the number of white-supremacist groups that ascribe to Murray’s notions, according to Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., which monitors hate groups.
Though nothing is as bad as Mississippi in 1955, Potok said, “We are going backwards in very significant ways.”
@cut:The ideology of white nationalism is on the rise because some whites feel threatened by black advancements, said Elijah Anderson, University of Pennsylvania sociologist.
“The process of incorporating has cooled,” Anderson said, citing attacks on affirmative action.
” … the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation …
America appears to have more racially isolated schools today than when Dr. King was alive, said Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.
That’s due largely to decisions by white parents to pull their children out of public schools, he said.
It’s true across the nation, including here in Philadelphia, said Roland Williams, who teaches African American literature at Temple University.
“The Philadelphia public school system has been drained of resources and is a community of minorities,” he said. “Martin Luther King would be disappointed to see a Philadelphia school system that is, de facto, segregated.”
Years of battles against isolationism have worn down many African Americans.
@body:”A great frustration has set in,” Williams said. “People say we are better off segregated.”
Anderson agreed. Some African Americans “don’t want their children and families hurt and so they run for cover. … It’s a chore to operate among people who treat them with disdain.”
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred …
African Americans have a higher per-capita rate of perpetrating racial hate crimes than do whites, according to Southern Poverty Law Center figures. Whites commit a greater number of racial hate crimes overall.
Since Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, some African Americans have turned to leaders who express the kind of bellicose views Dr. King disdained.
“Black people are looking for leaders to represent their anger,” said Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University. “It’s about identity and attitude.”
Meyers said some of his fellow African Americans have embraced people like Malik Zulu Shabazz, national chairman of the New Black Panther Party, who calls whites “devils.”
“These … militant buffoons diminish the serious agenda for equal opportunity that Martin Luther King gave his life for,” Meyers said.
” … America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds … So we have come to cash this check.”
With so much accomplished, African Americans still deal with glass ceilings, racial profiling and more, scholars say.
Al Adams, a reporter for Jet magazine in 1963 when he covered Dr. King’s speech, remembers feeling “absolutely optimistic” after he heard it.
“But my starry-eyed view of America is fading,” he said from his home in Stewart, Ohio.
Adams said black America is still waiting for the check Dr. King talked about.
“The interest is accumulating fast,” he said, “but the principal has not been paid.”
(c) 2002, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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