How African-Americans stand 40 years after the death of Martin Luther King

A statistical snapshot of black progress in areas from education to home ownership.

Andy Nelson – staff
Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center/ZUMA Press/NEWSCOM
Toni Morrison

At age 6, Martin Luther King Jr. was jarred when a parent of a white friend said the boys could no longer play together because he was black. Another time, King's father, a minister, was driving a car when a white policeman pulled him over for no obvious reason. "Listen, boy," he began, only to be cut off when the Rev. King pointed to his son in the passenger seat. "That is a boy. I am a man."

At age 14, King experienced a similar incident. While returning from a school debating competition, the driver threatened to call the police if he didn't move to the back of the bus.

King felt the pangs of racial bigotry growing up in Atlanta – and they stoked a fire within him. The son and grandson of pastors in Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, King pursued theological studies, culminating in a doctorate from Boston University in 1955. Late that year, he led a nonviolent bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., to protest Rosa Parks's arrest for refusing to move from whites-only seats at the front of a city bus. The boycott lasted 382 days.

In 1957 King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he continued his civil rights activism, eventually leading a mass protest in Birmingham, Ala., over unfair hiring practices and customer discrimination. In 1963, he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 250,000. It predated passage of the seminal 1964 Civil Rights Act by a year.

King was unbowed by arrests, assaults, and a bombing of his home meant to thwart his cause. In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, while preparing to lead a march of striking garbage collectors in Memphis, Tenn., he was assassinated on a motel balcony.

History of MLK Day

1968: Days after King's assassination, Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan files a bill in Congress to commemorate his life. It lanquishes, despite repeated efforts to revive it.

1973: Illinois is the first state to adopt the holiday.

1983: The initiative receives a lift from major civil rights marches in Washington in 1982 and 1983, when the bill finally passes. But the holiday is moved from Jan. 15 (King's birthday) to the third Monday in January to avoid other observances.

1986: Federal holiday observance begins.

1992: Arizona, whose governor rescinded the holiday in 1987, adopts it in the face of economic boycotts.

1993: Some version of the holiday is held in all 50 states for first time.

1999: New Hampshire becomes the last state to grant paid-holiday status.

2000: Utah becomes the last state to adopt the name, MLK Day, dropping its Human Rights Day designation.

2008: Work will begin in the spring on a MLK Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, scheduled to open in 2009.

Is the civil rights movement still important to blacks?

Yes: 60 percent (up from 57 percent in 1993)

No: 35 percent

How often blacks say they face frequent discrimination in:

Applying for jobs: 67 percent

Renting an apartment or buying a house: 65 percent

Dining out or shopping: 50 percent

Applying to college: 43 percent

How well blacks say they get along with whites:

Very well: 20 percent

Pretty well: 49 percent

Not too well: 20 percent

Not at all well: 4 percent

Percentage of blacks who'd like to see:

More neighborhood integration: 62 percent (versus 44 percent of whites)

More school integration: 56 percent (versus 23 percent of whites)

African-American firsts in post-King era:

1968 – Conductor of a major US symphony: Henry Lewis with the New Jersey Symphony

1969 – Mayor of Southern city: Howard Lee of Chapel Hill, N.C.

1970 – President of a major university: Clifton Reginald Wharton Jr. of Michigan State University

1975 – Baseball manager: Frank Robinson of the Cleveland Indians

1977 – US United Nations representative: Andrew Young (1977-79)

1983 – Astronaut in space: Guion Bluford

1989 – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Colin Powell (1989-93)

1989 – Governor: Douglas Wilder of Virginia

1993 – Nobel Prize for Literature: Toni Morrison

2000 – Billionaire: Robert Johnson, owner of Black Entertainment Television

2001 – Oscar, best actress: Halle Berry, "Monster's Ball"

2001 – President of an Ivy League school: Ruth Simmons of Brown University

Newsmakers whom blacks rate as a good influence:

Oprah Winfrey: 87 percent

Bill Cosby: 85 percent

Barack Obama: 76 percent

Bishop T.D. Jakes, pastor of a Dallas megachurch: 76 percent

Colin Powell: 70 percent

Tyra Banks: 68 percent

Jesse Jackson: 68 percent

Tiger Woods: 67 percent

Russell Simmons, hip hop entrepreneur: 67 percent

Al Sharpton: 65 percent

Others of note – Condoleezza Rice: 50 percent, Clarence Thomas: 31 percent

Sources: US Census; US Department of Justice; Pew Research Center; www.infopleasecom; "The Life and Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.," by James Haskins; "Martin Luther King, Jr.," by Diane Patrick

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