In Alabama Martin Luther King, Jr. took some of the most dramatic stands of the Civil Rights Movement, in Selma, in Montgomery, and in Birmingham. Half a century after those history-making events — and the March on Washington — King’s legacy, and the status of his dream of racial equality, remain topics of study, contemplation and passionate debate.
This week’s edition of Weld falls on the date of King’s birth, and the 28th anniversary approaches for the observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday on Jan. 19. In this community, so pivotal to the success of King’s efforts, Weld asked two questions: Where do we stand in the progress of fulfilling King’s dream today, and what is the most significant way in which King’s dream is either achieved or burning bright in the hearts of people in 2015?
Some see the answers through a prism of national events, while others say that what happens in Birmingham says as much as anything anywhere regarding where King’s dream now stands.
David Gespass, attorney for Black Lives Matter-Birmingham
I would first point out, as Jesse Jackson did years ago, that the idea of Dr. King’s “dream” really perverts the import of his so-called “I Have a Dream” speech by ignoring much of what he said. It was, at least equally, the “Broken Promises” speech. King talked about going to Washington to collect on a check owed to African-Americans that had been returned for insufficient funds. The prerequisite to fulfilling his dream was finding a way to make reparations for centuries of chattel slavery, followed by another century of Jim Crow. The effects of that legacy are still felt strongly today (see “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates that was published in The Atlantic).
A somewhat more to the point answer to your question is that everything has changed and nothing has changed. African-Americans have won legal equality, but they remain, overwhelmingly, victims of discrimination and institutional racism. They face far more draconian punishments and more severe consequences for the same infractions and the same actions as do whites, in school and in the court system (see The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander for a discussion of a part of this phenomenon). People react differently towards African-Americans because of ingrained stereotypes.
Which leads me to your next question. I think the most significant way in which King’s “dream” is being sought after today is the “Black Lives Matter” movement across the country in response to police killings and the failures of grand juries to indict officers. These demonstrations directly address the point that racism is no longer overt, but its legacy is so deeply ingrained in our society that most people are not conscious of it. The only way that can change is if people understand the dynamic. When people say they are not racist and that they view everyone as individuals regardless of complexion, they are generally not lying, but are deceiving themselves about how our history has impacted our collective and individual consciousnesses.
Hezekiah Jackson, IV, executive director Metro Birmingham Branch, NAACP
Where do we stand in the progress of fulfilling King’s dream today?
Halfway to freedom, justice and equality.
I was very fortunate to be included in the Birmingham premiere of Selma presented by Black Radio and 98.7 of Summit Media on Tuesday, January 6, 2015 at the Summit Carmike Theater. The movie is excellent and yet each time I closed my eyes to avoid tearing up, I felt the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the scenes on screen in and around me in America too much today. Dr. King spoke of resisting hate, and yet hate continues to rear its ugly head with race, class and sexual orientation.
Dr. King’s dream burns bright in the hearts of people in 2015, for those of us who believe in his dream still have unfinished business.
Bob Friedman, founder and director Birmingham Black History Museum project
If you’re talking about the ’63 speech, about white and black children playing together, etc., that may be happening in middle class communities here and there and in private schools, but that’s about it. Schools and neighborhoods are still segregated. Our children still “stand off” in the prisons, which is probably the best way to measure our progress.
However, that was not his only “dream.” In 1968, he planned a march on D.C. against the wishes of LBJ. He was through with the Democratic Party. He was through with American foreign policy. He had become an independent. He was probably always as such.
Martin is a hero of mine, but not as a monument, more like a living movement. He lived to face his conflicts with socialized action. When his own candle flickered, he opened up and socialized his conflicts to allow him to move forward. More people should practice that principle.
Martin would ask that everyone of every station find a way to get beyond their cynicism and join in civic life, become involved in the issues that will affect “black kids and white kids” regardless of whether you’re a parent or not.
Marie Sutton, Director of Student Media at UAB, and author of The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Historic Landmark
Dr. King dreamed of a community where people weren’t judged by their color, but by their character. What a concept. Imagine living in a world like that. If I squeeze my eyes real tight maybe I can see it. Maybe.
We are closer, for sure, but not at the point where we can say, “The dream has been fulfilled.” True, African Americans can vote and eat and live where they want. We have made progress, yes, but when I hear news stories about innocent black men being shot down in the street like dogs, read one of my Caucasian Facebook friends comment that Michael Brown should’ve been “hogtied,” review comments on AL.com that mock African-American culture, I know we are far from where we need to be.
Dr. King’s dream was never to become a community where no one sees color. That would be a nightmare. We celebrate our differences in culture and hues, but we need a community where we are free to be who we are without being feared, demonized or lumped into one big ‘ol category.
When you look at that black man walking down Bessemer Super Highway wearing sagging pants and smoking a Swisher Sweat cigar do you label him a “thug” or “worthless”? That’s a question I must ask myself, too.
When you see a frazzled chocolate-brown mom shopping in the grocery store with a line of kids trailing behind her do you assume there is no husband waiting for them at home? Do I?
I know a guy with charcoal black skin and whose pants hang low, but he writes poetry that sings, makes all A’s in college and loves his mama. I know a black woman who is unmarried with a young daughter, but she works like hell all day at the bank, helps her daughter with her homework and serves faithfully on the PTA.
Would you have looked at them and assumed that? Would I?
When we can celebrate our differences without tacking on labels that will be progress. Then, as a black American I will be able to say, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God almighty. We are free at last.”
Douglas M. Carpenter, author of A Powerful Blessing
The eyes of the nation will be on Selma this year, as they were on Birmingham in 2013. On March 29, Palm Sunday, the members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, an historically black congregation, will worship with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Selma, a historically white congregation. Fifty years ago, as the March to Montgomery was taking place, some members of St. Paul’s still struggled with the idea of integrated worship, speaking of the members of St. Mark’s as “outside demonstrators.” Today, that seems like distant history, and black and white will lead and take part in the Palm Sunday worship. This will not be only symbolic, it will be real.
Last year on January 20, at the invitation of the Rev. Bernice King, I spoke at the MLK celebration at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. This was also more than symbolic. It was real. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that he hoped to have a friendly meeting with the eight white clergy he scolded in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. Events moved very quickly after that, and the meeting never took place. King’s daughter and I, the son of one of the eight white clergy, became friends 50 years later, and that led to her asking me to preach at Ebenezer Church the following January 20.
There is still much darkness and hurtful prejudice in Alabama and in the entire world. We see it daily. Our job is to work so that the splashes of light we experience will grow brighter. We must have faith that the darkness cannot put them out, and we must daily do our part.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Gregory C. Townsend, chair, Birmingham Metro Diversity Coalition
As we commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the progress toward filling his dream of economic security, we need to focus on the “Poor People’s Campaign.”
Is there any hope for reviving poverty ridden communities in the Birmingham, Alabama area? The nation’s largest hunger-relief organization, Feeding America, provides data that show, “Hunger and poverty often go hand in hand, but poverty is not the ultimate determinant of food insecurity. People living above the poverty line are often at risk of hunger as well. Research demonstrates that unemployment, rather than poverty, is a better predictor of food insecurity among people living in the United States.” Also the most recent government data collected shows that in 2012, 46.5 million people (15.9 percent) were in poverty, including 16.1 million (22 percent) children under the age of 18. Forty-nine million Americans lived in food-insecure households, including nearly 16 million children.
According to the Feeding America Hunger in America 2014 study,
Based on annual income, 72 percent of all Feeding America client households live at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty line.
The median annual household income of Feeding America clients is $9,175.
More than half of client households (54 percent) report at least one employed person at some point in the past year.
In 2012, the US percentage of people living with an income less than the Federal Poverty Level was 15.9 percent, indicating at 18.6 percent Jefferson County’s poverty rate is higher than the national average.
So, the notion that efforts of the “Poor People’s Campaign” influenced decision-makers to eradicate poverty in America are false. An article tilted Working Poor: Almost Half Of U.S. Households Live One Crisis From The Bread Line stated that, “43 percent of households in America – some 127.5 million people – are liquid-asset poor. If one of these households experiences a sudden loss of income, caused, for example, by a layoff or a medical emergency, it will fall below the poverty line within three months. People in these households simply don’t have enough cash to make it for very long in a crisis.”
Dr. King dreamed of a day “when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” As we commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the holiday celebration is a time of reflection, collective learning and for a moment — to move from what was accomplished by the man to changes in society we need to see today.
Pamela Sterne King, assistant professor of history at UAB, formerly the first historic preservationist for the city of Birmingham
Fifty years ago I could have had no relationship with African-Americans. I could have had no intellectual discourse with them, no black friends or romantic interests, and no black bosses, colleagues, students or peers. Fifty years later I have had them all.
The way I see it, progress has been significant and serious, and has taken place one relationship at a time. For my parents, who were Civil Rights advocates, progress has been nothing short of unimaginable.
King dreamed of the day when blacks, as well as whites, could leverage their own political clout and forge their own personal paths. He knew that for that to happen, African-Americans had to have a way to visualize their dreams and aspirations. Today, black Americans see a black man in the White House, and a multitude of role models – from business tycoons and lawyers to hip hop artists, police officers and, yes, criminals and outcasts – whom they can admire or reject.
Perhaps this is what opportunity looks like. I imagine King knew it would.
Angela Fisher Hall, interim director, Birmingham Public Library
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned a world of total equality and he knew the process to get us there would be hard fought and slowly won. Civil rights, including the right to vote, was first on the list of achievements. Just before his death in 1968, Dr. King had begun his “Poor People’s Campaign” where he sought an end to poverty, unemployment and access to fair housing — on this front, we still have much work to do and there are no easy solutions. However, our economy is finally on the upswing, unemployment is down, and our local schools are experiencing a marked decrease in dropouts — this is progress.
For me, a solid education is key to fulfilling any dream — especially Dr. King’s dream. I’m very proud to say that in Birmingham we have the largest public library system in the state of Alabama and we are doing our part to help others realize King’s dream. Public libraries are the great equalizers in our society — regardless of who walks in our doors, we provide information and needed resources. Our libraries offer free access to computers for completing job and housing applications, training on completing resumes, programs for families on building literacy skills with their young children and so much more.
Yes, we still have work to do on this front. I believe we can get closer if our priorities continue to focus on improving the quality of public education and funding workforce development projects.
On Christmas Eve, I attended a community church service at the Boutwell Auditorium. Usually, the service is held in downtown’s Linn Park and provides outreach to the homeless community; however, this was a rainy Wednesday afternoon and we were inside. I was amazed by the diversity of the audience and the number of families that attended with their children in tow. Families brought items to share with the homeless and sat among them throughout the service. Later, they helped to serve food and distribute clothing to those in need.
I was deeply touched by what I experienced that day and what I continue to see on the streets of Birmingham in this New Year as we take time to care for others—especially as we experience these cold temperatures. Dr. King believed in service and he understood the importance of lifting up those around us. If we continue to serve others, teach our children — and believe ourselves — that all lives matter, we will get much closer to fully realizing Dr. King’s dream.
Chervis Isom, attorney and author of The Newspaper Boy.
Progress. From the time of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, we have a half century of progress, and it has produced dramatic improvements in the racial patterns since the days of Jim Crow.
I’ve heard it said over and over that legislation cannot change morals, but clearly the Federal Court decisions and the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Acts did, in fact, create the climate in which blacks and whites might get to know each other, primarily in the workplace, and to create relationships, which was impossible under Jim Crow, thereby diminishing the hate and suspicion between so many individuals. Clearly, after 50 years, I’m disappointed that we now have essentially segregated schools, churches and neighborhoods, and that is unfortunate. And we continue to have isolated (I hope) instances of police brutality against black men, which must be squelched.
Yes, clearly we have miles to go before we sleep, to quote a famous poet. But now we have economic segregation, in which most whites and the blacks with resources escape the inner city to the suburbs, leaving only the poorest in the old urban neighborhoods. Of course, the legacy of that condition is a poor school system, and the cycle of poverty keeps on rolling. So, in summary, yes, we’ve come a long way from the Jim Crow days of 1963 and the “I Have a Dream” speech, but not far enough.
Hope. I’ve been impressed the way the corporate community, especially the large corporate citizens, have embraced the need for diversity among the employees and brought it to bear against their vendors.
In my own world of the law, I’m well aware that many large corporations require a statement of diversity from the law firm before it will be engaged for legal work. I find this policy to be enormously hopeful and it may light the way for people of color to be representatives in all major companies and law firms and other meaningful areas of employment.
There also seems to be an interest in middle class people, particularly the younger set and the empty-nesters, in moving into the downtown loft areas and into the urban neighborhoods. This has been caused by a lot of factors, including high commuting costs, the stress of commuting, the sameness of suburbia, the excitement of downtown living, and myriad other factors. The result may well be the movement into our urban communities on the fringe of downtown. I think this movement will continue and grow and our urban communities will begin to prosper through a revitalization (as distinguished from gentrification), and those neighborhoods will slowly become diversified racially and economically and become ever more viable. In that way our schools will improve and over time, we may have a true realization of MLK’s dream of the “symphony of brotherhood.”
Ahmad Ward, head of education, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
In my opinion, we are closer to fulfilling Dr. King’s dream than we have ever been. With that said, there is still much ground to cover. While we have black representation in all forms of leadership (business, political, entertainment and sports), the numbers are still very low. Yes, there are more women in positions of power than ever, yet the pay scale is still unequal. There are systematic issues that affect minorities, women, young people and the elderly, but we are finally moving towards a place where people are starting to understand the true power they hold. The closer we get everyone to being on truly equal footing, the closer we will be to fulfilling the dream.
What is the most significant way in which King’s dream is either being achieved or burning bright in the hearts of people in 2015? I think it’s shown in the gains of minorities in the realms of organizational leadership, the election of the first African-American president, the record number of women in Congress, the public shaming of individuals and corporations who don’t value diversity and promote racist /prejudicial practices, and the fresh activism of millennials.
Photo by hollow sidewalks, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.
John Wright, writer and advocate for public transportation
I am an 87-year-old white Alabamian, and lifelong Roman Catholic. When I was six years old, my saintly Irish Catholic mother told me I must refer to my black buddy’s mother as a “woman,” not as a “lady”, the word I used in telling her the boy’s mother was a “nice lady.” I remember, at that moment, my young conscience telling me my mother’s comment didn’t sound right. Later, as I grew older, and learned about the Klan’s anti-Catholic hate and intimidation of Catholics in my hometown a few years before I was born in 1927, I realized my mother’s remark about my pal’s mother was to teach me about the flawed “Southern way of life” so I wouldn’t put myself in harm’s way by calling an adult black female a “lady.”
Fortunately I was born with a social justice gene. It has remained alive and well all of my life.
In my opinion, the most significant progress has been achieved, in large measure, by U.S. Supreme Court decisions declaring segregated schools and passenger seating in public transportation, both as unconstitutional. I believe the recent national elections in which we saw President Obama the center of vicious and hateful attacks, resulting in an unhealthy domination of Republican majorities in the House and Senate. This “trickle down hate” has created Republican majorities in both houses of the Alabama State Legislature. Republicans continue to tap into the dormant and not so dormant fear white Americans have for African-Americans because not much has been done to help Americans understand that all citizens must be united in opposing bigotry and hate. These negative attitudes corrupt our democracy and freedoms.
Evidence Dr. King’s dream is being achieved – I believe this is happening throughout America by African-Americans understanding that a good education is their path to better jobs and a better life. Millions of African Americans have moved forward in the last 50 years to pursue and achieve those goals. I believe white Americans need to be more aware of this and recognize that none of this would be happening if Dr. King and many others had not been willing to struggle and die, to open the doors of freedom for their sisters and brothers. I believe their motivation is, and always will be, the ghosts of their slave ancestors urging them to go higher and higher, singing that joyful slave hymn chant,
“Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”
James Sutton, II, pastor, Holy Trinity Church, Thomas.
Sharing your dreams produces vulnerability. I suppose that’s why many shy away from it. The story of Joseph in the Bible is about a man whose dreaming got him in trouble. One day he tells his family about a dream he had that one day he would be greater than them all, parents included. Needless to say, they considered his dream of greatness a delusion of grandeur. His father wrote him off and his brothers sold him into slavery, unconsciously setting in motion God’s plan for the fulfillment of his dream.
After many years of mistreatment and betrayal Joseph’s dream probably seemed more like a nightmare. Eventually, he became second in command in Egypt only to Pharaoh. Through Joseph, God was able to keep a promise he made to Abraham many years before. Joseph’s dream was also God’s dream.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed too. His dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream.” But, his idealistic dream would face off with the rigidity of American racism and the indefatigable spirit of status quo. Less than a month following the “I Have a Dream” speech the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed, killing four little girls and injuring another for life. Dr. King would later say that his dream of racial harmony and unity had turned into a nightmare. Five years later, Dr. King himself would be dead.
Does the dream die with the dreamer? Not if it’s God’s dream. God’s dream cannot be stopped. God’s dream cannot be killed. God’s dream is the only dream that matters.
America has made much progress since Dr. King’s time. I believe he would agree if he were alive today. However, I also believe he would say that we have not come far enough. His dream was for every child to receive a quality education and every person to receive fairness under the rule of law, quality housing, equal employment opportunities and equal pay.
We have made much progress, but we clearly have a long way to go. When unarmed black men can be shot in the streets by those hired to protect them, we clearly have a long way to go. When there are more black men in jail than in college, we clearly have a long way to go.
Racial healing will come not when governments or policies change, but when hearts change. Someone said, “The Civil Rights Movement changed laws, but it could not change hearts.” Racism and injustice are not only indicative of a nation’s laws, but more indicative of people’s hearts. If hearts change, laws change. If hearts change, systems change. And, there is no institution better equipped and empowered to produce such change than the church.
Dr. King’s often quoted statement that Sunday at 11 a.m. was the most segregated hour in America is still true. I and many other pastors across the country are working to change that by building multi-ethnic, multicultural churches and relationships. On Sunday, Jan. 18 at 10:45 a.m. my mostly African-American Holy Trinity Church, will worship with the mostly white Ardent Church. We will also perform a joint service project on Monday, Jan. 19 in honor of Dr. King.
Ardent pastor Steven Castello and I agree that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest hope we have for reconciling our human divisions. Jesus’ example of sacrifice, unwavering forgiveness and unyielding love over 2,000 years ago is the foundation for our reconciliation today. Heaven will not be cordoned off by race, class or educational background, but God’s dream is to bring people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” together for all eternity for His glory.
Joseph’s dream gave way to Dr. King’s dream. Dr. King’s will come true because it is God’s dream too. Heaven will be a beautiful mosaic of color where “all God’s people” will be together forever. That’s God’s dream. It cannot be stopped. It cannot be killed. God’s dream should be our dream too.
Tammi Sharpe, Human Rights Fellow at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The views expressed below are mine…
If we think back to the environment of 1963 when Dr. King gave his speech, “I Have a Dream,” the progress achieved is tremendous. Although I was born as the system was being dismantled, I’ve been knee-deep in research on historical racial oppression in the United States for the last couple of years and in particular I’ve had the opportunity to interview members of the white community who had not actively supported the Civil Rights movement and read the oral history interviews of the foot soldiers.
When I listen to their stories of growing up in a Jim Crow culture and their assessment of the situation today you cannot help but see that we have taken numerous strides forward. Blatantly racist laws have been dismantled. African-Americans’ achievements are acknowledged both in history books and public culture. African-Americans are employed in virtually all sectors and a significant number of African-Americans hold prominent political offices. Manners dictating social interaction between the two races have been discredited: manners as absurd as addressing African-Americans by their first name regardless of age and familiarity, not referring to African-American females as ladies, African-Americans expected to step out of the way of a white person or to tip their hat.
Yet, we are still very much a segregated society. Many neighborhoods are predominately one race or another. The schools in large part resemble their neighborhoods’ race and ethnic composition. Interracial relations, though not uncommon, are far from being the norm. While race is a part of the explanation for our continued segregated worlds, socioeconomic factors play a central role too. A number of current laws, policies and practices that are not racial in wording nonetheless have discriminatory consequences.
Our remembrance of history in more elusive ways may also be encumbering development of a more just and integrated society. I question whether we can progress towards such a society without revising our vision of America as the “City on a Hill” with a more honest reflection of our history that takes into account of the longstanding atrocities committed against African-Americans as well as others since European immigrants like John Winthrop arrived on this soil.
What is the most significant way in which King’s dream is either being achieved or burning bright in the hearts of people in 2015? I would say the steadily increasing prominence of African-Americans in public positions such as the presidency of the United States but also as doctors, judges, lawyers, generals, professors, writers, editorialists, journalists etc. Their successes challenge the core assumptions of white supremacy.
Joyce E. Brooks, artist and author of It Ain’t Over!
When I think of Dr. King’s dream, I reflect on his “I Have A Dream Speech” where he urged people to stand together on everything from freedom and equality to economics and justice.
Fifty-two years after he delivered a message that ignited a movement, there remains an urgent need for people to stand together. Seeing this generation ignore their differences and unite to address the critical issues facing our society is a huge step in the right direction.
Because there remains much work to do to fulfill Dr. King’s dream, some may view the dream as a never-ending nightmare; however, if the dream of one black man from AtIanta, Georgia who was assassinated 47 years ago can continue to ignite a movement, then I’d say we’ve made considerable progress.
The most significant way in which King’s dream is being achieved in 2015 is through the level of involvement every sector of our society has in expressing its commitment to the dream.
Regardless of age, race, gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, economic status, or political beliefs, we are standing up for our freedoms and liberties.
Although we often see opposing views and positions, Americans are exercising their rights to fight for what they believe through voting, protesting, praying, social media, grass roots organizing, and the court system. I think the level of activism we see by everyday citizens exemplifies what it means to live Dr. King’s dream.
Photo by Heather Pryor, courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.
Cathy Parrill, executive director of Sylvan Learning Center in Birmingham, educational activist
It’s easy to look at what’s going on in places like Ferguson and say we haven’t come very far in the fifty-plus years since King so eloquently ignited his dream in us. But the road of progress is a long one. To know where we stand we need occasionally to remind ourselves of where we’ve been.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of a daughter whose eyes teared when she learned she couldn’t go to a particular amusement park because of the color of her skin. Thankfully, those days are long gone.
Gone, too, are the humiliating signs “Colored” and “White” that hung above water coolers and in waiting areas of bus stations and other public places. Gone are most of the unjust laws and regulations that divided us race.
We have collectively created a society whose laws, for the most part, live up to its creed of equality.
But we’re not at the end of the road. If we had true equality, dignity and liberty for all, divisive words like “black” and “white” would no longer be used to refer to human beings. Those labels not only separate and set us apart; they are unnatural and inaccurate.
When my grandson, Nick, was not quite four years old, he remarked to me one day, in a voice of surprise, “Did you know that Maddy’s and Livvy’s skin are a different color from mine?”
The two girls lived next door and and had been his closest playmates and friends since the time he could crawl. Until now he’d never noticed their differences.
“Oh, really?” I asked. “What color is their skin?”
“Brown,” Nick said.
“And what color is your skin?” I asked my grandson.
He held his arm in front of his face, turned it over, looked carefully at it from all angles, then said, “My skin is light tan.”
So why do we grown-ups teach our kids to diminish the full palette of colors with which they view the world? Why do we reduce an infinite range of hues to two stark opposites? Maybe it’s time to think about that.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King said, “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with the effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
We’ve torn down a lot of barriers to equality, like the signs over water coolers and doorways, and the separation of schools by race. Through laws and regulations our society has eliminated many of the collectively installed and enforced separation of the races. As a result, we have more equal access to opportunities. As a society we have struggled with and made great strides in areas of oppression, including those of race, gender, sexual preference and religious creed. We have made significant, meaningful progress.
But when we look at our neighborhoods, prison populations and economic indexes we know that we can go farther.
It’s time to grapple with the next layer of underlying causes, even though they go back before any of us were born. As surely as we must deal with a genetic predisposition to heart disease if we want to live healthily, even though we had nothing to do with its origin, so must we continue to deal with the remnants of inequality, even if they are leftovers of lifetimes ago.
We’ve made big changes in our society, and to a great degree, in ourselves. We still have residues to deal with, though, hidden in thoughts, actions, language, and habits. It will take individual self-examination and intentional transformation to clean ourselves of them.
More than 50 years ago, King dreamed of a time when, “in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” In many — though not yet all — of our neighborhoods, playgroups, churches and schools that day has come.
King ignited a dream in a generation of us. He inspired us and called us to change. If he were alive to see his 86th birthday this week, King would surely celebrate how far we’ve come.
I think he’d also still be dreaming of a better future. Maybe his would be something like mine: I dream of a day when parents and children in Alabama no longer think of themselves as black or white, but as brothers and sisters of infinite shades and hues.
Arthur L. Bacon, artist and Professor Emeritus of Natural Sciences and Humanities at Talladega College
The inauguration of the first black president of the U.S. in 2008 certainly seemed to signal change in this country, simply because it took much more than the African-American vote to nominate and to elect him. It appeared–to many people, some euphoric–that the dreams of Martin Luther King had come true. And, it is true that without the brilliant and determined leadership of Dr. King and the tireless and courageous efforts of the many people of the Civil Rights Movement the U.S. would probably not have an African-American president. However, King’s dreams and our hopes have not been completely been realized.
There is little doubt that tremendous strides have been made; however, we are not where some of us think we are — we have not arrived. The Voting Rights Act is still being challenged, our president is shown great disrespect and hate groups and police brutality seem to be on the rise. It is highly likely that the next Congress will continue to change the configuration of Congressional districts in an attempt to minimize the impact of the African-American vote.
One only needs to listen to the news and the rants of Congress to know that it is much too soon to relent. However, there is room for hope. However, one only needs to listen to the news to also know that we are not relenting — Dr. King’s dreams are very much alive.
Nathan Turner Jr., Alabama Media Group copy editor and author
I would say that the glass is half full in regards to fulfilling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream.
This is because many of the impediments to African American progress are structurally and deeply embedded in society. There is still too much lip service in the halls of power in proclaiming commitment to making black people equal in the arenas of finance, education and politics. In fact, education has become the Achilles’ Heel for minorities languishing in substandard schools as many educational systems have re-segregated or ducked integration all together.
In a positive vein, I think there is hope festering for race relations. Many people are more accepting of each other’s (skin-deep) differences. And, recently a new consciousness has arisen that all ”lives matter.” I think this may be an embryonic light in a profound journey to Dr. King’s dream for humanity. But, of course, we must grade on the curve, knowing that while no one is truly color blind, they should be given credit for good intentions and decent impulses toward their fellow humans. And the overriding truth that the community is no stronger than its weakest links, whether hobbled by poverty or racial prejudice, should eventually become more than an afterthought.
L. Waymond Jackson, Jr. vice president, Education and Workforce Development, Birmingham Business Alliance
I think it is important to note that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was built around three fundamental topics: now is the time; we can never be satisfied; and I have a dream. This effectively created a model for how we can address progress as a society. While we have seen considerable improvements since he delivered his now famous speech – civil and voting rights legislation, gains in gender equality, and improved opportunities for access to quality education – we still can’t be satisfied and must continue working to move society forward based on all of the ideas espoused in his speech, and not just in his masterful closing.
As many scholars have noted, part of the beauty of King’s speech can be seen in the way he used his knowledge of the Bible and the United States Constitution to craft his argument of “equality for all.” In doing so, he implored America to live up to the high moral values that are stated in our constitution and guarantee that all citizens receive those liberties. Today, elements of that dream can be seen in the continued push to ensure that our constitution is applied fairly and that legal gains since King’s speech continue to open doors equally for all Americans. This can truly be seen in the area of education, and in those that continue to work toward increasing access to quality education and providing quality job opportunities for people to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Deidre O. Clark, founder, Kuumba Community Foundation
In the last 50 years or so I believe we have made some progress. Children of different races occasionally attend the same schools, the “colored”/“white” signs are gone, black people have the right to vote and we can buy a house wherever our money says we can. But then there’s the work yet to be done. We still have glaring racial disparities. Almost everything disproportionately affects black people when compared to whites or even Hispanics. Or, one only has to consider the voter ID laws of 2014, the gutting of the heart of the Voting Rights Act to know African-Americans have a long road before Dr. King’s dream is realized. We still say, “we can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality” and we still look for the day when our children will be judged by “the content of their character not the color of their skin.”
Dr. King’s dreams shines bright in the heart of the #blacklivesmatter campaign. The use on non-violent protests and economic boycotts are lessons we learned from him and those that organized and marched with him. His dream is being achieved with every victory large or small from the bill congress passed about police shootings to every time someone new joins the fight against racial injustice.