Each year as the nation celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a time to reflect on how far the nation has come in reducing racial inequality.
When King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, many things we take for granted today were just a dream.
Two months before the speech, Gov. George Wallace attempted to stop the first black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. Elementary schools in the state were white-only or black-only until September of that year. African-Americans had only recently won the right to sit with whites at lunch counters across the South. Laws banning interracial marriage were not struck down by the Supreme Court until 1967. Bob Jones University banned interracial dating for another 30 years after that.
It was a different country, especially in the South, back when King was marching and speaking.
Despite the view of “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson that blacks working in the fields were perfectly happy back in the 1960s, there was a civil rights movement under way. Robertson’s recent controversial remarks on both blacks and gays are a reminder that some people fail to realize what is going on around them.
King tried to make the country understand the struggle for equality. His efforts, and those of many, many others, changed a nation. Schools and neighborhoods are integrated. Interracial couples are now common enough to be showing up in TV ads. The dynamic that now seems so inevitable was anything but 50 years ago. Without the push from the civil rights movement – and especially King – it’s difficult to know where we’d be.
All is not perfect here in America, of course. There are neighborhoods that are still virtually all-white or all-black, although not by government edict. Black citizens are disproportionately likely to be poor or incarcerated.
What would King think of America and the world in 2014? Could he have dreamed of the things younger generations now take for granted? The basic right of equal opportunity in life, which people marched and died for, is now a given, at least under the law. There are always glaring exceptions, such as the Trayvon Martin case and New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy, but could King have imagined a black president?
This is a country continually working to widen its embrace. While we don’t always get it right, at least there is an opportunity to have an open and honest discussion and work for change. That’s progress in a place where once not all people were equal.
King might not recognize the country today, in both good and bad ways. But what he would recognize is the continuing struggle to make it better.