Thirty Years After King: How Close Are We to Achieving the Dream

by Donald Whitehead

It has been 30 years since we lost Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to an assassin’s bullet in Memphis Tennessee on April 4th, 1968. It was the assassin’s belief that, to kill the dreamer was to destroy the Dream. As we celebrate Martin Luther King day many wonder if the assassin may have been right. So I ask today, "How close are we to Dr. King’s dream becoming a reality?"

In order for us to answer that question, we must first examine "The Dream". As on many occasions historians and journalists have condensed Dr. King’s dream, in order to make it more socially acceptable. Children today learn parts of Dr. King’s dream, they are spared the more controversial parts. The immortal words, "I Have a Dream" will always be associated with substantial gains of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened doors that have seen many African-Americans achieve parts of the American Dream. King’s call for the end to the war in Vietnam and an equal distribution of wealth are less frequently mentioned in writings about Dr. King and his great accomplishments. Let us first address the most popular parts of "the dream." On many days in America, freedom does ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, freedom rings from the mighty hilltops of New York, freedom rings from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, freedom rings from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. And not only that, some days freedom rings from the Stone Mountain of Georgia, freedom rings from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee, freedom rings from every hill and molehill in Mississippi, from every mountainside, freedom does ring. America has come a very long way towards making those immortal words a reality. Yet on close inspection we still have a mighty long way to go.

While acts of institutionalized racism, like the infamous tapes from the board rooms of Texaco still occur in today’s America, they are now met with outrage and are not simply business as usual. While African-Americans are still the number one victim of hate crimes in America, these actions are usually conducted by individuals or a loose-knit group of hate-mongers. While organized hate groups still exist, their membership and effectiveness has fallen on hard times. Today, a more powerful form of racism is the more subtle variety. These bearers of hate hide behind loan denials, fair lending discrimination and red lining.

On many days little black girls and little black boys walk hand in hand with little white girls and little white boys. Dr. King would be pleased about a lot of what has transpired in America, but we still have a long way to go. It is still an uneasy feeling to be an African-American in today’s America

The other less publicized part of Dr. King’s Dream, the struggle to end poverty, continues to be far from reality. When Dr. King was assassinated he was planning the Poor People’s Campaign and a March on Washington. The battle to end poverty, a heroic effort indeed, has proven to be an even bigger challenge than racism. While African-American people were unified in their efforts to end racism, something that effects us all, unanimity ended when rumblings of economic equality were heard.

Dr. King would probably be astonished by recent trends in this country. As some of our people have moved up the economic and social ladder others have been left behind to "pull themselves up by the bootstraps". Poverty continues to disproportionately effect African-Americans. More and more African-Americans are finding themselves homeless in the richest country in the world.

Recent trends in legislation have placed the blame for poverty on those that are in poverty. In a sane, civil, intelligent, and moral society you don’t blame the poor people for being poor. "I predict that 25 years from now America will be just as embarrassed about homelessness as we are about racism", said Andrew Young, former member of Congress, United Nations Ambassador for Jimmy Carter, two term Mayor of Atlanta, and Dr. King’s right hand man. While we constantly hear about the economic boom that America is experiencing, the boom has somehow avoided most of inner-city America.

Shortly after Dr. King’s death we did see an end to the Vietnam War. War still plague much of the world. On the eve of Martin Luther King Day young men stand alert poised for yet another encounter with Saddam Hussein and the people of Iraq. This conflict pales in comparison to Vietnam, however people still die and King would not be pleased. This part of Dr. King’s dream has progressed. Vietnam has ended, but the need for bloody conflict has not. Hopefully, in our lifetime we will find a way to settling conflicts without the loss of lives.

To grade the progress of Dr. King’s Dream would be impossible on a normal grading scale; the scale must be expanded to include an I for incomplete. America still has a lot of unfinished business when it comes to the first part of Martin’s dream. The difference will come when there is proportional representation of a cross section of races sitting atop America’s corporations. When we will be able to stop documenting hate crimes. We look for a day when my walk across the street is not accompanied by the sound of automatic door locks. I truly believe that America will become a land of harmony between people of all colors.

The other part of the dream can receive a conventional grade. It is hard to believe that we have failed so terribly in making this country equal along economic lines. Not only have we failed, we continue to slip farther apart. As the gap between CEOs and workers continues to increase, housing becomes out of reach for more and more Americans. Affordable housing is becoming more and more scarce with each new housing reform law. Welfare reform will set this nation back farther than any single piece of legislation in the history of America!! An F is the only grade possible to give for the economic justice part of the dream.

In conclusion, the assassin was wrong, the dream did not die. Although it is incomplete in parts and failing in others, America still has a chance. Let us just pray that we don’t wait too long to seize the opportunity.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published 1998 Issue 25