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Martin Luther King, Jr.: How would American life be different without him?

Institutional racism in the United States has declined greatly thanks to the work of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet 'we have not reached the promised land MLK talked about,' says one scholar, nor has the economic equality King sought for all races been achieved.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / January 14, 2012

School children from Watkins Elementary School listen to classmates recite the 1963 Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech from the exact spot it was delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

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Los Angeles

Awaiting a panel discussion titled, “What if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had Tweeted the Civil Rights Movement,” Franklin Henderson sits in the darkened Steve Allen Theater, talking about the life he didn’t have to lead because of King.

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“We didn’t have a poll tax in Miami, Florida where I grew up or a lot of the other hurdles blacks had,” says the retired, Past National President of the Ninth & Tenth (Horse) Calvary Association. “He brought civil rights in America a very long way.”

“But not far enough,” says his wife, Doris. “There is still a long way to go.”

The two comments echo the discussion today among scholars, activists, and African American community leaders in cities across America. A brief newsreel of civil rights marches, the fire hosing of blacks in the streets, and the discriminatory practices of the South sets the backdrop for the evening’s discussion of how today’s social media – as harnessed by several countries during the Arab Spring – would have eased the ability of King to organize his marches and boycotts.

But would it have lengthened his legacy?

“There are lots of whites, Latinos, and African Americans themselves who thought that with the election of Barack Obama, we had ventured into an America without racism,” says history professor Maghan Keita, director of Villanova’s Institute for Global Interdisciplinary Studies. “Yet, here we are, four decades after King, with encampments in public places still calling for the kind of equality he was after.”

President Obama has weighed in with his official proclamation of the federal holiday.

“On a hot summer day nearly half a century ago, an African American preacher with no official title or rank gave voice to our Nation's deepest aspirations, sharing his dream of an America that ensured the true equality of all our people,” says the presidential declaration. “From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a movement that would push our country toward a more perfect Union.”

Interviews with scholars, academics, and sociologists across the country show that assessment under question.

“For most whites the playing field has been leveled and what has cemented this perception in the psyche of most whites was the election of a black president,” adds Dr. Charles Gallagher, Chair of the Sociology Dept. at La Salle University, who studies race and ethnicity. Yet, he adds in an email, “the social science data is unequivocal: institutional racism continues to shape the life chances of racial minorities in America. We have not reached the promised land MLK talked about, but much of white America now believes we have.”

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