Martin Luther King Day: How far is America along road to the 'dream'?

Problems that disproportionately beset black Americans – poverty, broken families, prison time – have barely nudged during the Obama administration. But Martin Luther King Day is also an occasion to recognize progress for the black community.

By , Staff writer

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    Thousands take part in an MLK Day march honoring Martin Luther King Jr., Jan. 21.
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President Obama began his second presidential term on Monday by laying his hand upon two Bibles: One was used by Abraham Lincoln, the other belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the “traveling" Bible that the civil rights leader carried on marches.

Those two volumes are symbolic bookends to America’s past 150 years, especially when combined with Mr. Obama’s own achievement as the first African-American president of a former slave nation. But if Lincoln helped America correct its course by emancipating the slaves, it’s Dr. King’s “dream” of equal rights and a color-blind society that seems more fundamental today – Martin Luther King Day – as America's first black president begins another four years at the helm of the world’s most powerful republic.

To be sure, Obama has had to carry the burden of black America’s continuing problems, and his legacy may yet be tainted by the economic malaise that has idled nearly one-quarter of all able-bodied black workers – an unemployment rate twice that of white America. Other problems that disproportionately beset the African-American community – poverty, broken families, high incarceration rates – have also barely nudged under Obama. And in some political quarters, racial tensions have ticked up under Obama.

Recommended: How well do you know MLK? Take the quiz!

Yet as Americans take stock of the moment, the change that has swept across the country in the four decades since the onset of the civil rights movement is stunning and a testament to an inherent American goodness that King recognized and reinforced in his speeches and marches. 

“We are far from achieving the perfection of Dr. King’s ‘Dream’ but that is no reason to ignore how far we have come,” writes Fox News contributor and Washington media veteran Juan Williams, who is black. “Even now, as we see shifting demographics seeding racial tension in some precincts, the country is still moving forward. The United States is a good country. This nation still labors to achieve the vision of Dr. King and President Reagan – the shining city on a hill.”

Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday in 1983, a moment when many people came to recognize King as a pivotal and aspirational figure for all of America, not just as a leader of blacks who championed their civil rights. King, whose words in the inspiriational “I have a dream” speech and the philosophical “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” lifted up a nation, was assassinated in Memphis,Tenn., on April 4, 1968.

Since then, America’s black middle class has become larger and more influential, especially in places like Atlanta, King's home town. America’s black middle class is now “the wealthiest, best-educated community of black people in the world,” writes Mr. Williams.

Yet, on this confluence of MLK Day and Obama’s inauguration, some Americans suggest that the president may be less the benefactor of King’s “dream” and more its modern-day standard-bearer.

Large numbers of African-Americans attended Monday’s inauguration on the National Mall in Washington, and some said that young, low-income blacks, especially, relate to Obama because they see him defending opportunities and government help for those who are struggling.

Those views hint at a stubborn perception gap, in which a majority of blacks cite discrimination as a roadblock to success in the US while whites, by an equally large margin, believe that blacks seldom, if at all, experience bias.

But in a common perception that links to King’s insistence that blacks bear responsibility for their situation, a majority of both races say African-Americans who don’t get ahead have primarily themselves, not discrimination, to blame, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Moreover, some Americans perceive, rightly or wrongly, that Obama emphasizes King's calls for "societal responsibility" in redressing racial discrimination over King's point that individuals bear personal responsibility for ameliorating such bias, as a function of God-given "natural law." They worry that such an emphasis leads to an overreliance on government to fix everyone's problems – and consequently, an oversized government. Indeed, the debate over striking the right balance between societal and individual responsibility is playing out today in issues ranging from gay marriage to tax policy concerning whether to raise taxes on the rich or cut spending on programs for the poor. 

“Natural law, at least the version to which King refers, is that law which encounters the glory of divine creation in nature,” writes Stanford University lecturer Ruth Starkman on the Huffington Post. “It is old, troublesome, and informs the ideals of America. … Irrevocably volatile, natural law may equally encompass King’s appeal to God-given rights and natural born equality as well as various scriptural illiberalisms, including the notion that marriage is ‘naturally’ about one man and one woman.”

More troubling, perhaps, on the day of Obama’s inauguration is that a majority of black Americans remain skeptical about whether King’s dream can actually be realized in the US. After Obama's first election in 2008, there was a spike in the share of blacks who said that equality had already been achieved. But that perception has faded in the dark economic days that have followed. Today, more than half of all US blacks again don’t believe that racial equality has, or will be, achieved.

“The combination of blocked roads to social mobility, continuing economic crisis, the near unanimous belief among blacks that racism remains a major problem in the United States, and the consequent widespread and growing despair about the prospects for racial equality provide the grounds, if not the inevitability, for an ever more volatile and conflicted racial landscape,” Michael Dawson, director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture in Chicago, wrote in The New York Times last year.

Yet other experts suggest that younger generations are wearing down those lingering malignancies. Social historians point to younger Americans, especially those under 40, as pivotal to the nation’s social justice reforms around race and other hot-button issues, including gay marriage and drug criminalization. That would include the generation that came of age in integrated public schools, a dream that King saw realized before his death.

"This generation that is rising is the most diverse we have ever had in this country," NAACP President Ben Jealous told ABC News this week. "It's also the most inherently inclusive and the most embracing of racial and gender equality. … It's in their DNA." 

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