“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Have you listened to these words recently? Driving home this afternoon, I turned on my radio to hear the sonorous voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. pounding out this speech, and it still moved me, even though I must have heard it at least a dozen times.
This of course is the speech King gave on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters) in Memphis, Tenn. On the next day, King was assassinated.
Speaking five years earlier at the historic March on Washington, King had expressed his hope for a future of equality when he gave his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech. “Justice for all” was his cry as he expressed hundreds of years of struggle for those who faced fierce discrimination in the United States.
The celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day gives us an opportunity to consider:
Has King‘s “Dream“ Been Realized?
Not according to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center earlier this year. Nearly half of those who responded said a lot more needs to be done before people in the United States would “be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” They believed that the economic gulf between blacks and whites is roughly the same as it was 50 years ago, but that the gap has narrowed on measures such as high school completion and life expectancy. So let’s see:
What Have We Accomplished Since 1963?
In the 50 years since King articulated the dream of a generation, the United States has seen significant progress toward the ideal of racial equality.
* Infant mortality rates for African-Americans dropped dramatically from 41.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1963 to 11.42 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013. Similarly, life expectancy rates also increased.
* The field of education has seen huge improvements. While just 25.7 percent of blacks aged 25 or over had completed four years of high school in 1964, in 2012 that figure was 85 percent; the number of African-American college undergraduates has increased tenfold since 1964.
* Legally mandated racial segregation in the American South has been dismantled.
* African-Americans have come to occupy positions of power and influence, from the boardroom to the statehouse to the White House. In 1963 there were just five African-Americans in Congress; by 2013 that number had jumped to 44.
What Haven‘t We Accomplished Since 1963?
Political and social progress toward equality may be clear, but the same cannot be said for economic equality.
* With a few exceptions, U.S. income inequality has consistently worsened since reaching a low in 1968, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the U.S. Census Bureau. Over that same period, the average African-American household continued to earn about 60 percent of the average white household.
* The percentage of Americans living in poverty — after dropping to 11 percent in the years immediately following Dr. King’s 1963 speech — was back to 15 percent in 2011.
* The black unemployment rate has consistently been about double that of whites since the 1950s, according to Pew.
* In 2010, the median white household had eight times the assets of the median black household, according to the Urban Institute.
The Pew Research Center poll also found that seven-in-ten blacks and about a third of whites said blacks are treated less fairly in their dealings with the police.
Thirty-five percent of blacks polled said they had been discriminated against or treated unfairly because of their race in the past year, compared with 20 percent of Hispanics and 10 percent of whites.
Dr. King understood that civil rights includes economic rights. Until income, wealth and opportunity are made more equal, his Dream will remain unrealized. We’ve come a long way, but we have definitely not reached the Promised Land.
Photo Credit: UIC Digital Collections