MLK's dream is the American dream

Fifty years ago, black Americans -- and many whites as well -- descended on Washington, D.C., to insist on one simple thing: that the United States keep its word that "all men are created equal." Fifty years later, progress on equal rights has been realized in some ways, but it remains a dream in others.

Reza A. Marvashti/The Free Lance-Star/AP
A virginia family hosts a young boy from Harlem, N.y. as part of the Fresh Air Fund offered to urban youth.

People change their minds for a million reasons. Sometimes a million people change their minds for one reason. Let’s go back to Aug. 28, 1963 – midway through one of the most tear-stained years in American history. It was the year fire hoses and police dogs were used against civil rights marchers, when Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Miss., and four little girls were killed by a bomb blast at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Later that year, President Kennedy was assassinated.

Against that backdrop, hundreds of thousands of people descended on Washington, D.C. They were peaceful. They were polite. They were insistent about what had to happen. The centerpiece of the March on Washington was a speech like no other.

In 17 minutes, Martin Luther King Jr. swept through American history, recalling the broken promise of equality for all, “the fierce urgency of now” in gaining civil rights, and the unstoppable power of “meeting physical force with soul force.” His voice strengthened and his cadences built as he progressed through the refrain of “Let freedom ring!” to the now sacred peroration: “I have a dream” – of reconciliation, brotherhood, and colorblindness but most of all of an America living up to the true meaning of its creed that “all men are created equal.”

That late August day 50 years ago was a tipping point in history. Any honest observer had to acknowledge the moral imperative of racial equality. King’s dream was an inarguable vision for what America should be. Millions changed their minds. Within a year, the Civil Rights Act was law. Public spaces and workplaces changed. Discrimination was outlawed.

In a Monitor cover story, Carmen Sisson measures where racial equality stands in 2013. Progress has been indisputable. But if the era of stark injustice is a distant memory, many civil rights workers say subtle racism persists. King’s dream has become reality in some ways but remains a dream in other ways.

That squares with the view of another longtime observer of race relations (and an old friend and colleague). Wil Haygood has written about racial issues throughout his journalism career. His mother is from Selma, Ala. As a young reporter in Pittsburgh, he paid his own Greyhound bus fare to Washington, D.C., in 1983 to witness a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech. 

Yes, racism persists, Wil says. But echoing America’s first black president in the wake of the verdict in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, he also says there is no doubt that “the nation has moved further in front than retreated.” In a new book, “The Butler: A Witness to History,” Wil tells the life story of Eugene Allen, a black man of quiet dignity who joined the White House staff as a “pantry man” in 1952 and rose to White House butler, serving eight presidents. (A movie based on Mr. Allen’s life and starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey has just been released.) Allen’s vantage provides a unique window on the history of the past 50 years.

One measure of how far we’ve traveled: “When Mr. Allen went to work at the White House,” Wil says, “he would go home to Virginia and have to use segregated facilities. Look at that – and then look at the astonishment of November 2008.”

If King’s dream is not fully realized, if it is still in part a dream, at least now it is the American dream.

 John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. He can be reached at 

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