Martin Luther King, Jr.: How would American life be different without him?

Institutional racism in the United States has declined greatly thanks to the work of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet 'we have not reached the promised land MLK talked about,' says one scholar, nor has the economic equality King sought for all races been achieved.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
School children from Watkins Elementary School listen to classmates recite the 1963 Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech from the exact spot it was delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Awaiting a panel discussion titled, “What if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had Tweeted the Civil Rights Movement,” Franklin Henderson sits in the darkened Steve Allen Theater, talking about the life he didn’t have to lead because of King.

“We didn’t have a poll tax in Miami, Florida where I grew up or a lot of the other hurdles blacks had,” says the retired, Past National President of the Ninth & Tenth (Horse) Calvary Association. “He brought civil rights in America a very long way.”

“But not far enough,” says his wife, Doris. “There is still a long way to go.”

The two comments echo the discussion today among scholars, activists, and African American community leaders in cities across America. A brief newsreel of civil rights marches, the fire hosing of blacks in the streets, and the discriminatory practices of the South sets the backdrop for the evening’s discussion of how today’s social media – as harnessed by several countries during the Arab Spring – would have eased the ability of King to organize his marches and boycotts.

But would it have lengthened his legacy?

“There are lots of whites, Latinos, and African Americans themselves who thought that with the election of Barack Obama, we had ventured into an America without racism,” says history professor Maghan Keita, director of Villanova’s Institute for Global Interdisciplinary Studies. “Yet, here we are, four decades after King, with encampments in public places still calling for the kind of equality he was after.”

President Obama has weighed in with his official proclamation of the federal holiday.

“On a hot summer day nearly half a century ago, an African American preacher with no official title or rank gave voice to our Nation's deepest aspirations, sharing his dream of an America that ensured the true equality of all our people,” says the presidential declaration. “From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a movement that would push our country toward a more perfect Union.”

Interviews with scholars, academics, and sociologists across the country show that assessment under question.

“For most whites the playing field has been leveled and what has cemented this perception in the psyche of most whites was the election of a black president,” adds Dr. Charles Gallagher, Chair of the Sociology Dept. at La Salle University, who studies race and ethnicity. Yet, he adds in an email, “the social science data is unequivocal: institutional racism continues to shape the life chances of racial minorities in America. We have not reached the promised land MLK talked about, but much of white America now believes we have.”

Asked what they feel Americans should consider on this federal holiday of commemoration, many say activities should go beyond celebration to self-reflection and individual action.

“People should draw from the legacy of King the drive to live out their own American dream,” says Brian Bellamy, who teaches race, religion, and identity at the University of New Haven. “Do something that no one in your family has ever done before. Go to college, start a business. His vision was that all Americans should be able to achieve the dream. Do what you can as an individual to make that happen.”

Several mention this year’s commemoration should include a new push to audiotape, videotape, and chronicle the stories of King and the Civil Rights era while those that lived through it are still alive.

“History is very slippery and easily lost and forgotten,  so it is the archival function which needs to be accelerated, not just the focus on King’s great achievements,” says Northeastern University law professor, Margaret Burnham, founder of  The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ).

Her school sponsored a talk Friday by Isabel Wilkerson, former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.”  Based on scores of interviews she did across the country, Wilkerson spoke on where and how African Americans struggled to build new lives outside of the South. She also touched on how northern cities came to incorporate music and culture that might not have existed if not for King.

“She interviewed hundreds of people whose stories have never been told,” says Burnham, “and that is a vital part of what others must focus on as well before it’s too late.”

Asked what is less known or underappreciated about King, some say it was his ability to execute nuts-and-bolts organizing with diverse organizations that came together during the civil rights era.

“There is appreciation of his religious thought and his political philosophy of non-violence, but often overlooked is his management skills,” says Dennis Simon, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.

Professor Simon says King’s first post of importance was a diverse contingent of groups that included ministers, labor leaders, and a woman’s council, called the Montgomery Improvement Association.

“This is where he went into the trenches and learned how to deal with people, how to deliberate and come to decisions, how to develop political strategy, and how to frame it in a viable narrative for the media,” says Simon. “We are all the beneficiaries of what King learned in this crucible.”

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