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March on Washington: Why is Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'dream' only half-realized?

March on Washington: An event to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I have a dream speech' was held at the Lincoln Memorial Saturday. How much racial progress has been made since Dr. King's speech?

By Staff writer / August 24, 2013

Dorothy Meekins holds up the national flag with the picture of President Barack Obama as she attends the rally, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013.

Jose Luis Magana/AP

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The span between Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rousing and critical “I have a dream” speech to a packed, diverse throng at Abe Lincoln’s feet 50 years ago and the ascension of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president highlights both Dr. King’s greatest aspirations and an acknowledgement that his dream has stalled, only half-realized.

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The speech on the mall in 1963 was a spiritual, rousing critique, out of which came a unifying national clarity of what the late Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor Ralph McGill called “the firmness of truth” which, in turn, led to the difficult concession that separate and unequal, despite tradition and culture, had to be forcibly challenged and modified through federal legislation and enforcement.

Out of the long aftermath of the dream speech, however, has emerged a paradox: The rise of racial equality to a point where the Supreme Court this summer said the Voting Rights Act has become an anachronism that has not ended social and cultural segregation – the stubbornness of which keeps the races, and classes, at least to a degree, apart, and strangers. Instead of MLK’s dream of a “beautiful symphony of brotherhood,” blacks and whites still occasionally strike jangled chords.

It is an open question as to whether President Obama has helped or hurt race relations in the US or the extent to which he has proven that the black man is no longer “an exile in his own land,” as King put it in his speech.

His election proved America had moved beyond hardened racial judgments, and since his election Obama has attempted to walk a fine line between honoring black Americans’ struggle while trying to give shape to a new debate, which he wrestled with in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the not guilty verdict of his shooter, George Zimmerman.

In a nod to the mood of the times, Obama’s answer was not to appoint a reconciliation commission, but to urge racial reckoning by individual Americans at the dinner table.

To be sure, attitudes about racial injustices have continued to diverge by race. In a recent Gallup poll, 68 percent of blacks said they believe the US justice system is biased against black people, while only 25 percent of whites held that view.

At the same time, the era of a black president has been devastating to many black families, highlighting, for some, the limits of what government can do to right historical wrongs.

Under Obama, blacks have lost household worth, median income, and employment at double, sometimes triple the rates of whites and even other minorities.

Given that tattered image of black America, the civil rights movement, too, is at a crossroads 50 years after King spoke at the Mall.

Today’s young activists are turning it into a global human rights movement that includes gay rights. This week, Nihad Awad, the director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, urged Muslims to attend events, saying that “Dr. King's dream is deferred every time an American is discriminated against or mistreated because of the color of their skin, their faith, their gender or their legal status.”

“Hot-button issues like racial profiling, police stop-and-frisk practices, and social justice have joined global causes like immigration reform, women's rights, and issues affecting other minority communities, suggesting a blurring of the lines between the ideological underpinnings of today's youth-led civil rights movement and that of the 1960s. Call it Civil Rights 2.0,” writes Monitor correspondent Carmen Sisson this week.

Yet that broadening of the movements, some say, threatens to blur the mission. The black churches which led the civil rights movement, for instance, remain one of the greatest critics of gay marriage. And while civil rights leaders rallied for “Justice for Trayvon,” critics chided them for failing to point out racism, hatred, and bad behavior in the black community.

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