Today is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, and this upcoming August marks 51 years since he gave his famous I have a dream speech. Although the most famous part of the speech was improvised, from his prepared remarks it is clear that Martin came to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that day not just to inspire a movement, but to make an argument.
He argued that in 1963, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Black Americans were still not free. He went on to cite crippling poverty, unfair treatment by police, and a lack of social mobility as a three indicators of the continuing bondage of Black Americans.
Great strides have been made over the past half-century, but by these standards that Martin outlined, Black Americans are still not free in 2014.
In the wake of the great recession, much attention is paid to the national unemployment rate. The part of this story that doesn’t seem to gain traction in the national media is this: The unemployment rate for Black Americans has been roughly twice the national average for the last 50 years.
…the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
Little did Martin know that today, black households would have an average net worth of $5,000, down from their average net worth of $7,150 in 1984 (adjusted for inflation). The average white household is worth 20 times that of the average Black household. We’ve got some work to do.
We have come a long way from Bloody Sunday in Selma, where less than 100 miles from the place I was born, dogs, teargas and beatings were unleashed on a peaceful crowd attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge on their way to Montgomery.
Sadly, there is still a dark history of police brutality against Black Americans that causes distrust of law enforcement in our community. This history dovetails with other incidents that together, reinforce the statement Martin made from the Lincoln Memorial on that day:
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
Yet and still, you are most likely to be pulled over by law enforcement if you are African-American, a phenomenon I’ve experienced that we colloquially and painfully refer to as driving while black (DWB). In some areas, a black driver is 7 times more likely to be pulled over by law enforcement.
Martin’s words ring true today. We cannot be satisfied and must continue to work to foster greater understanding, cooperation and unity across racial lines. Here too, there remains work to do.
We have not shaken this issue in 2014. Not only are black children more likely than their white counterparts to be born into poverty, but they are less likely than their peers to escape it.
We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.
Martin could have said this yesterday and it would still be true. While nearly two out of three white Americans make it into the middle class by the time they are middle-aged, only 30% of Black Americans have the same success. Once again, there is much work left to do.
So what exactly must be done?
It begins with remembering what the dream was all about. The dream was more than a narrow pursuit of legal equality for Black Americans, but an all-encompassing goal of legal and social parity for all. It is only through broad equality for everyone that fairness becomes available to anyone.
We must take a realistic assessment of the progress of that dream.
There is only one logical conclusion: The dream has not been abandoned, nor has it been wholly fulfilled. The dream has been deferred.
In Harlem, Langston Hughes poses the famous question that inspires my thoughts today: “What happens to a dream deferred?”, and then goes on to answer this with a new question, “…does it explode?”
The civil rights movement was the explosion of that dream, the moment when an entire people decided that they were not going to take it anymore. So they organized. They protested. They marched. People of all colors and creeds joined in, and the movement put pressure on the government until it forced change to become real.
Martin concluded that historic speech in a way that only a southern Baptist preacher can – captivating the nation with a simple refrain, as he said over and over, “Let Freedom Ring”. This simple phrase reminds me of those in our society that, in 2014, still can’t hear the ring of freedom.
Where is freedom’s ring for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that live in our shadows, supporting our economy while in constant fear of being shipped away from their families?
Where is freedom’s ring for the 850,000 poorest Americans who are losing $9 Billion of what little food assistance they have?
Where is freedom’s ring for the long-term unemployed, who are given less and less time to search for fewer and fewer jobs that are becoming more and more competitive?
In memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., let Americans of all races do our part to work together for the common good. We must know each other, understand each other, and help one another.
Only then can we fulfill the motto found on our National Seal – E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.
And only when freedom rings for all, will we all finally be free at last.