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.
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.
Racial epithets against whites by one of the alleged murderers of Chris Lane, an Australian student, highlights resentments, even hatred, of whites in the black community, while rough criticisms of black “thugs” that poured out on the internet during the George Zimmerman trial betrayed deep animosity and fear among whites.
The feeling among many whites, studies have found, is that America heeded King, and changed. Equality was codified in new law, and programs were instituted to help blacks get ahead. But for some, race, in the ensuing years, has become a zero-sum game, where black gains have led to white declines, and an increase, at least some believe, in anti-white racism, either overtly or covertly.
“We tried to capture the complexity of talking about race in contemporary America, and it’s often more about perception than reality,” says Sam Sommers, a Tufts University psychologist who has studied how whites see racism. “Data aren’t going to support the idea that young white men are being disproportionately targeted by anyone, but our study shows that the average white person sees bias against whites being more of a problem than bias against blacks.”
“One hypothesis behind a feeling among whites that race relations is a zero-sum game which they have begun to lose is that there’s a demographic shift in society coming to fruition, the fact that we will no longer be a majority-white culture,” opines Mr. Sommers.
Jeannine Bell, who studied discrimination in neighborhoods for her book “Hate Thy Neighbor,” documented many cases of crimes directed at minorities who integrate white neighborhoods, but “could not find a single case of where whites [moving into black neighborhoods] had the types of vandalism, assault directed at them. Can there be a little bit of hostility? Yes. But more frequently whites are welcomed.”
Part of King’s half-realized dream is a matter of language, too, where once-powerful words have begun to lose their meaning.
Modern discussions about King’s speech “must begin by acknowledging the way we now interpret the themes it raised at the time,” writes Gary Younge in the Nation magazine. “Words like ‘race,’ ‘equality,’ ‘justice,’ ‘discrimination’ and ‘segregation’ mean something quite different when a historically oppressed minority is explicitly excluded from voting than it does when the president of the United States is black.”
Much of the disagreement comes down to the role of government in “solving” racism.
In general, liberals believe government has an obligation, as King did, to help the oppressed and maligned. Also in general, conservatives believe that too much public assistance only cements the racial status quo, and kills incentives for blacks to take advantage of America’s opportunities.
Across America, of course, black and white American children do walk hand in hand, as King dreamed, through public school hallways. Interracial dating and marriage is accepted, even applauded.
Here in King’s hometown of Atlanta, a black middle class has found root, and prospered, even as working class blacks and whites live together in quietly improving neighborhoods. The lingering problem for many middle class blacks and whites is one of class and poverty as much as race, specifically what to do about a broken black underclass still chafing at the shackles of poverty.
Perhaps ultimately, King’s dream is half-realized because even his momentous words arguably fail to give meaning to what’s happening in an America far different in character and content than the one King helped to irrevocably change, by force of will and charisma, before his assassination in Memphis in 1968.
Once a pariah, King has become a mythical icon, his visage now carved in granite on the Mall. He urged government to use formulas to right historical wrongs. Yet one of his most enduring messages was about individual liberty, the exhortation for Americans to judge each other not by race “but by the content of their character.”
It is the span between those ideas where America has struggled to understand the pastor from Atlanta. Which is it: Can the government force America to become a colorblind society or are government policies undermining individual liberty and shackling America to a bygone era?
In the elusive answer, perhaps, lies the key to unlock King’s stunning dream, once and for all.