Fifty years after the March on Washington, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, is an appropriate time to reflect on progress the nation has made toward racial equality.
The nation’s first black president has just been re-elected, but opinion polls and our own observations show that King’s dream remains just that … a dream.
The election of Barack Obama is a symbol of the equality King longed for. Yet, some who stood with King a half-century ago are now finding themselves waging a new battle, one to keep the very rights earned in that struggle.
John Lewis is now a congressman from Georgia, but back in the 1960s he marched with King and endured assaults with fire hoses to help black people achieve the right to vote. He is the sole surviving speaker from the March on Washington. Now, at 73, he is fighting to ensure that black people retain the right to vote.
On June 25, the Supreme Court threw out the most powerful part of the Voting Rights Act, which was enacted in 1965 to legislate an end to racial discrimination at the polls.
The Voting Rights Act was a seminal achievement in the civil rights struggle. Now, so many years later, this country is sliding back to a time when whole groups of citizens are being denied their right to vote. Back then it was poll taxes, literacy tests and outright intimidation. Now it’s voter ID laws, shortened voting hours and difficult registration requirements.
That effort to deny voting rights is justified as necessary to fight voter fraud, a virtually nonexistent problem that is already dealt with by other laws. The reality is those efforts depress votes from the poor, especially minorities.
As soon as the Supreme Court issued its decision, Texas and Mississippi, both with shameful histories of discrimination against minority voters, announced they would move to implement controversial voter ID laws.
Jim Crow laws are gone, as are segregated schools and accommodations. But the wealth gap between white and black families is increasing, and black unemployment is high.
Accordingly, a new poll says that fewer than half of all Americans believe the country has made substantial progress in the past 50 years toward racial equality.
The survey, by the Pew Research Center, found that 44 percent of whites and 79 percent of blacks say “a lot more” remains to be done to achieve racial equality.
“The public seems to be saying that we as a society are heading in the right direction, but we aren’t there yet,” said Pew senior editor Rich Morin. “Most Americans realize we have made at least some progress in the past 50 years, just as large majorities say that we need to do more to truly become a colorblind society.”
This has been a historic year for black Americans, with January marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, then Obama’s second inaugural and now the anniversary of the March on Washington, which took place Aug. 28, 1963, and attracted a then record crowd of 250,000.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King referred to the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed millions of slaves in 1863. It proved to be a profound 17-minute speech that continues to resonate. In the extemporaneous ending, King said, in part:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’
“I have a dream that my four little 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.”
The nation has made much progress since that speech, but we still have miles to go.