The great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech –– often cited for its hopeful, dreaming tone –– begins with a message of tragedy. On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King lamented the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation, signed 100 years before, had failed America.
“But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free,” King said. “One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
Just as King recognized the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to highlight the hope its significance instilled and emphasize the ways its intentions were not realized, we remember the civil rights movement and look at the ways we have failed to achieve King’s dream for America.
Today, 50 years after King’s life was tragically taken by a bullet, we look back at King’s dream that his children “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In many ways, our country has grown closer to achieving this dream. But in larger, systematic ways, we continue to allow discrimination to manifest in the form of white privilege, white supremacy, police violence, and economic disparities.
Just as many see the Emancipation Proclamation as the end of slavery, some consider Barack Obama’s election as president to be the end of racism in America. When Obama was elected, the country seemed to adopt a new sense of hope for the future and pride for the present, particularly a belief that discrimination based on skin color had ceased to exist.
In terms of the type of segregation King preached against, the U.S. social climate is looking up. In fact, a recent World Values Survey found that the amount of white Americans that said they would move if a black family moved into their neighborhood has dropped from nearly 50 percent in King’s day, to just 6 percent.
King himself recognized that the fight for inclusion and equality would be much more difficult than the fight for integration. In his sermon “The Other America,” he expressed a dedication to ensuring better housing, working, income and education conditions for African-Americans.
“We are struggling now for genuine equality. It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality,” he said.
Mass incarceration disproportionately affects African Americans. Police violence disproportionately affects African Americans. The wage gap overwhelmingly and disproportionately affects African Americans.
White supremacists still exist, openly. Color-blind racism as a result of white privilege has in many ways replaced government-sanctioned segregation as a justification for passivity in the fight for true equality for all Americans.
While these fights are far from over, we can honor King’s legacy by focusing on the activists continuing his work in concrete, effective ways.
The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has a “I Am 2018” “campaign to fight for racial and economic justice and combat so-called right-to-work laws,” according to The Nation. The Nation also reported that the new Poor People’s Campaign to end poverty, modeled on King’s original campaign.
The New Jim Crow works to fight against mass incarceration of African Americans and advocates for their rights once they leave the prison system.
Black Lives Matter seeks to end violence against African Americans and to end the deeply ingrained yet obscenely racist idea that black lives are less valuable than white ones.
Local education organizations like Breakthrough Collaborative improve the conditions of schools in areas of low socioeconomic status.
Though this anniversary of King’s death points us to the ways his dream has been realized, it also serves as a reminder of the many strides we have to take before reaching anything close to true equality for all Americans.