Five Views On Progress in Race Relations, Civil Rights
If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would be 85 years old, an old man in a unique position to reflect on a tumultuous period in American history.
From his vantage point, how would he assess the progress the nation has made in race relations and civil rights? We asked five professors to weigh in on how they think King would view America in 2014.
Assistant Professor, African-American Studies
If Dr. King were alive today, he would be impressed with the numerous political and even some of the social gains made by those who have been historically and systematically marginalized and dispossessed.
However, he would be heartbroken by the ongoing incidents of war, genocide, economic injustice and poverty seen in the world today.
The fact that Dr. King’s legacy has often been in correlation to the plight of African Americans does not fully cover his influence on the world. Sure, the young Atlanta minister cut his teeth on civil rights activity as a leader with the Montgomery Improvement Association and as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church while in Montgomery, Ala. In Montgomery, both of these entities were instrumental in desegregating public transportation. Yet, as King’s influence grew larger, his work promoted humanity notwithstanding race, creed, gender and origins.
In the months leading up to Dr. King’s assassination, he became increasingly outspoken in opposition to war and poverty. His leadership with the Poor People’s Campaign demanded economic and human rights for impoverished people after it became clear that political gains made during the classical phase of the Civil Rights movement yielded no significant improvement to the lives of the poor. King would surely be disappointed to see that 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, we are still far from the goals of full employment and more low-income housing for the poor.
Associate Professor, Sociology
In 2006, the television show “The Boondocks” aired a controversial episode premised upon the idea that Dr. King did not die on April 4, 1968, but fell into a coma only to awaken in late 20th century America. King experiences voter disenfranchisement while attempting to vote in the 2000 election, threats to his safety while walking on an eponymously named street, and censure from the White House and mainstream media for advocating his philosophy of nonviolence in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Hosting a rally to promote his political party and ideas for change, King becomes so chagrined and disappointed by the behaviors of young African Americans with whom he was interacting that he explodes in frustration, using racial epithets to express his disgust. The episode ends with King moving to Canada, a news headline that he dies of old age, and the message that this is all the dream of one of the main characters.
Though controversial, this episode offers a good jumping-off point to consider what King might today think of the state of race relations and civil rights. Undoubtedly, he would be heartened by some signs of progress, the most obvious of which being the election and re-election of the nation’s first black president. However, based on his history, it is important to give King credit for his attention to the issues of racial equality and justice that affect the masses, not just the symbolic significance of one individual’s success. He would certainly be critical of the staggeringly high unemployment rate for black Americans (often twice that of whites), a prison industrial complex in which black men are disproportionately likely to serve time, often for nonviolent, drug-related charges, and the fact that a majority of black children now grow up in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty.
True to his sociological training at Morehouse College, King would view these as symptoms of bigger problems rather than issues indicative of black pathology. He would advocate for a governmental role in shaping social policy that ensures an end to racial discrimination in housing, education, public policy and employment—patterns of which have been documented extensively by social scientists over past decades. And on an interpersonal level, King would likely decry the ways that these institutional patterns have perpetuated the maintenance of racial stereotypes, distance and social isolation between races—so much so that black individuals walking, riding, or approaching whites for help become viewed suspiciously and sometimes subjected to lethal violence.
Associate Professor, History
King would likely say that while the overthrow of legalized segregation and political disenfranchisement through the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act represented tremendous victories after decades of intense struggle, in many ways that legislation marked as much a beginning as a culmination. For instance, it was only around 1970 that most of Georgia’s school systems desegregated and that we began to see considerable numbers of black elected officials. He might argue, as hard as it was, that overthrowing legal segregation was the easier part of the journey. Taking on such deeply embedded, systemic and seemingly intractable matters as poverty, income inequality and housing discrimination is a more difficult task, as King experienced himself. In many ways, it was easier to take on such obvious and overt racists as George Wallace and Bull Connor than it is to confront the more insidious racism of today.
I think King would be disheartened by many of the developments of the last generation or so, the widening of income inequality, the decline of federal support for urban America, the pipeline to prison for many young African Americans, the coarseness of contemporary American political discourse, the demonization of the poor, the segregationist underpinnings of much of the modern conservative movement and the attempts to roll back the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights legislation. I also think he would have been dismayed at how he personally is commonly portrayed, whether strictly as an apostle of nonviolence (without a deeper understanding of what nonviolence actually meant), or as someone only concerned with civil rights, or, in a twisting of King’s dream for his children that “they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” as a proponent of minimal government intervention to help uplift the poor.
Many forget that King grew increasingly internationalist over the years, and openly opposed the Vietnam War. I suspect he would have been a critic of much of recent U.S. foreign policy. As his support of the Memphis sanitation workers and call for a Poor Peoples Campaign indicate, he was deeply concerned with economic inequality and the rights of labor. I imagine he would have been in the forefront of related struggles today. And, as his widow Coretta Scott King did, I firmly believe he would have become a staunch advocate for LGBT rights, speaking out against discrimination based in large part on the circumstances of one’s birth.
Associate Professor, History
Like his associates, Dr. King would celebrate the attempts to move towards an inclusive society. He would celebrate the election of the first African American president. Yet, I wonder if his support would have been automatically for the black male candidate? Or would it have mattered to King that the young man from Chicago was not a part of the modern civil rights legacy?
I wonder what directives he would present to black pastors of mega churches, considering the outreach possibilities of such congregations.
Women, including black women, are now leading, building, organizing, promoting and developing change globally. Imagine Dr. King meeting with Susan Rice, former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.
How would King respond to the economic growth in certain segments of the black community? Would he consider that payment for an insufficient check? I am not sure that King would stamp the check paid in full. Nor do I think he would see the first black president as the dream fulfilled.
So, to determine what Dr. King would or would not think about current issues, one has to only examine the fullness of what he said when he was among us. Unfortunately, so many of the blights of his era are still very real for urban communities, poor rural families, single parent homes, the homeless, the shrinking middle class, chronic unemployment, injustice, the lack of full equality, poor health care, unaffordable housing, the vote.
It reminds me of some old school lyrics—”Make me wanna holla, throw up both my hands” or Marvin Gaye, who asked the still pertinent question, “What’s going on?!”
Clinical Associate Professor and Director of Field Education, Social Work
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke about the “fierce urgency of now.” By that he meant the need for America to move swiftly and immediately away from injustice and segregation and toward “an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.” As we celebrate what would have been Dr. King’s 85th birthday, we can count many victories, from the election of the first African American president to the passage of legislation that now makes it possible for millions of those previously uninsured to have health insurance.
But as social workers we know firsthand that The Dream has not been fulfilled. We hear the stories. We know the statistics. Fifteen percent of all Americans living below the poverty level, with 21.8 percent of children under 18 living in poverty and jeopardy of never receiving the education and support needed to place them on the path that leads to self-sufficiency. Given this, and the many other injustices that still plague America and the world, Dr. King would surely remind us that there is still a great deal of work ahead. He would admonish us to embrace it with “the fierce urgency of now,” to get moving and to get it done.
We must all be mindful of how power and privilege impacts our thoughts, attitudes, words and actions. We have to admit our mistakes, reflect on how we can do better and work together to move forward. We must acknowledge the importance of inclusion, which promotes social and economic justice. The late poet Adrienne Rich wrote: “When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality, choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, gay/lesbian, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium as if you looked in a mirror and saw nothing.”
As we celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, let us work to ensure that all will see themselves in the mirror of justice and equality.