DOWN Beale Street the marchers stride single file, past the statue of blues trumpeter W. C. Handy. Their step is measured, dignified, nearly soundless. ``I am a man,'' proclaims the placard each wears. The time is March 1968, the city is Memphis. Its striking sanitation workers, overwhelmingly black, are walking to the business center to demonstrate for higher wages and greater respect. It was the last demonstration that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led before his assassination early the next month.
It was also a demonstration that represented a transition in a way that few then realized. The quiet black men of Memphis were walking out of a tortured past in which both problems and solutions seemed clear. But they walked into a more complex future, where the racial challenges facing the nation are more numerous and solutions elusive.
Similarly, white America's support for the principle of equality of opportunity for blacks would shift to skepticism toward specific proposals.
In the years immediately preceding the Memphis march, the clearest obstacle to civil rights and improved race relations had been the state and local laws that restricted the rights of Southern black Americans. ``We had one problem - segregation. And we had one answer - desegregation,'' says the Rev. Dr. Albert S. Foley, S.J., a civil rights activist for the past 54 years. He now is director of the Human Relations Center of Springhill College.
At first the solution seemed straightforward: Pass and enforce federal statutes to nullify antiblack laws. In the middle 1960s, the United States government enacted the laws, and, with volunteer help, began enforcing them. White American public opinion supported the improved treatment of blacks.
``The American public definitely shifted in terms of the [integration] principles that they were willing to endorse,'' says Karen Dugger, a professor of sociology at Bucknell University.
But it soon became apparent that the new federal law did not automatically yield equality. Many vexing issues required attention including the need for better housing, education, and job prospects for blacks.
During the past two decades these and accompanying issues have been the battle ground in the struggle for racial equality.
Since the mid-1960s ``the issues have become much more structural, more economic, more philosophical, and much more difficult for Americans to deal with,'' says Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University.
But Dr. King was aware of these problems. ``Even from the very beginning he sensed deeper and more complex issues'' than simply overturning the racially restrictive Jim Crow laws, says Douglas Sturm, a professor of religion and political science at Bucknell.
King's difficult Chicago campaign dealt with problems of housing, education, and employment. The Poor People's Campaign, which he launched during the Memphis demonstration, wasn't very successful in bringing together poor whites and blacks in joint demand for improved economic conditions.
``King sensed the complications even at an early stage,'' professor Sturm adds. ``But he tended to concentrate ... one thing at a time. Certain things could be accomplished at a certain time.'' Other problems would be dealt with in turn.
To promote equality of opportunity, the long-running issues of housing, education, and job opportunities, require national attention. To a considerable degree, poor Americans of other races share these problems with poor blacks.
What are often seen as racial issues are more often economic and social problems that affect poor people whether black, white, or other ethnic group says Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute. He says that although the issue of race magnifies the economic and social problems poor blacks face, America needs to structure programs to help the poor of all races.
Blacks and whites are equal ``on paper,'' says John Gaston, chairman of the department of minority studies at Wichita State University. ``But the difference between that and implementation is where the real test comes in.''
Ironically, black-white relations in America these days are better in some areas and worse in others than during Dr. King's time, Professor Gaston says. ``At one level, there's a lot more interaction,'' particularly among professionals at work, he says. ``At the other extreme we have the have-nots. ... There's some stress and strain in terms of common denominators they face.''
White resentment toward black progress has increased in recent years, Mr. Gaston says: ``People seem to feel that everything is equal, so that no one should get anything special,'' such as affirmative action.
It's hard to measure accurately what white America really feels now, Professor Dugger says. Polls consistently show Americans favoring racial integration in the abstract. But ``there is a vast gap between their willingness to support integration principles and their willingness to support policies to implement these principles,'' she says. For example, whites consistently support school integration but often oppose the busing or redistricting required to bring it about.
In addition, ``the more intimate the relationship between blacks and whites, the more that whites are likely to oppose it,'' she adds. She cites racial intermarriage as an example.
Furthermore, civil rights observers say white resentment of black progress and perhaps even of blacks themselves apparently is growing, in an echo of the pre-civil rights era. ``There is a tendency now to very strong antiminority activity in the country, including among the educated, on college campuses,'' says Milton Greenberg, provost and professor of government at American University. He points to increased violence against blacks, Asian-Americans, gays, Jews, and other minorities.
It's socially acceptable now to use code words to mask antiminority fears by referring to blacks in terms of ``drugs and crime,'' Dugger says.
``From about 1955 to 1968 ... there was at last in our land a sense that racial discrimination was wrong,'' Professor Greenberg says. ``That is not in the air anymore.''
Sadly, too many Americans find it ``much easier to hate other races than to love one person,'' he adds.
Many members of the younger American generation, however, see the advancement of educated blacks into management positions as clear evidence of progress.
This advancement can bring with it a new group of challenges. Whites must learn for the first time to take orders from black superiors, and blacks administrators must learn to direct white subordinates without lording it over them as white bosses once did over blacks.
But these problems occur ``relatively infrequently,'' Professor Dugger says, because few black administrators actually have many white subordinates: ``They tend to be segregated in these workplaces. Blacks tend to manage blacks,'' or to be put in positions that deal primarily with other blacks, such director of the minority affairs department.
Greenberg and other race relations observers call on America's leadership, from the White House on down, to speak and act repeatedly in support of better race relations. ``It is a truism,'' he says. ``Unless you do teach diligently unto your children, they're going to forget it. And that's exactly what's happened to this generation in this country.''
Much stronger leadership from government officials now is necessary, Greenberg says. ``It has to come from the president. There's got to be force behind it. You've got to empower the Justice Department'' to prosecute vigorously those who violate the civil rights of minority Americans.