More than 51 years ago, the son of a Georgia pastor climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in front of 250,000 gathered around the reflecting pool between the memorial and the Washington Monument.
The speech stirred up a nation and helped lead to the passage a year later of the Civil Rights Act, which ended legal racial discrimination and segregation, but many still see King’s dream of racial equality as an unfulfilled hope.
Events throughout the country and around Southern Illinois on Monday will celebrate the civil rights leader's life and discuss the legacy King has left to another generation seeking to continue his cause.
More work to be done
Earlier this summer, people took to the streets to protest the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner who were killed in confrontations with police.
Their deaths and ensuing protests raised questions about how far the country has come since King used both the words of the founding fathers and the Bible to make the case for his dream that people be judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
“We think of the accomplishments he’s made, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” said Corene McDaniel, Carbondale councilwoman. “In celebrating and remembering his birthday, we need to stop and think 'What can I do to make this a better country, city and community for those who live in it.'”
Father Joseph Brown, SIU professor of Africana studies, sees the problems King fought against making a resurgence, including voting rights challenges and the racial and economic segregation of public education.
Brown said King’s efforts helped change the “legal structures, but changing hearts, changing attitudes and changing the basic understanding of what America has to be — that work continues.”
Carbondale Councilwoman Jane Adams, who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, said the nation has come a “tremendous distance” but the job of making the legal victories work remains.
“You had the right to vote, fair housing, public accommodations — all of those laws had been passed and so the legal foundations for white supremacy and segregation had been removed and had been thwarted by the Supreme Court,” Adams said.
“So what was left to accomplish was a much more difficult thing — actually removing and transforming a system of white supremacy and white segregation into one of equality and opportunity. And we’re still working on that.”
Margaret Nesbitt, chair of the I Can Read! Program of Southern Illinois, said many think his dream has been realized because their vision doesn’t extend beyond their own lifestyle to see the world from the perspective of those discriminated.
“Everyone that’s above the cloud will say everything is fine, but come on down. Come on down and let’s talk together, let’s walk together for a minute,” Nesbitt said. “I’d just love to walk with someone to show them the desperation in young people’s voices who say there’s nothing left to do, there’s no jobs.”
Narrowing the divide
Finding answers to the racial divide, however, is more difficult than identifying the problem, but Cathy Field, Carbondale Racial Justice Coalition member, said it begins with listening to each other.
“White people need to remember that there is another way to look at these things. They need to learn to listen to black folks. Over the years, I’ve had to learn to listen to people of color,” Field said.
The Racial Justice Coalition is focused on fixing racial inequality in education that Field said “begins even in grade school,” with African-American children disciplined at “consistently higher rates than white children.” The group also looks at inequality in policing and the courts.
Half of the defendants in Jackson County courtrooms are African-American, Field said, casting some of the blame on racial profiling.
“The same dynamic that causes black children to be disciplined at greater rates makes them much more likely to be convicted, imprisoned and much more likely to get harsher sentences,” Field said. “No matter what public stage black people walk on to they are disadvantaged in life-altering ways.”
Nesbitt, whose reading program at the Eurma C. Hayes Center started in 1999, said education will play a key role in lifting up minorities, arguing that those who are educated “know how to talk and how to walk to get your points known.”
You have free articles remaining.
The protests in Ferguson this summer and fall polarized the country, but instead of creating the racial divide they merely brought it back into the nation’s consciousness again, Brown said.
With wall-to-wall coverage on news stations, America was reminded of the problem it hoped would stay swept under the rug.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t change things,” Brown said. “It just changes our awareness because we can be lulled into forgetfulness and issues like Ferguson, Staten Island, the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland and Trayvon Martin are wake up calls that every life matters.”
“Black lives matter” became a mantra for protesters earlier this year, calling attention to what they consider to be the public’s relative unconcern for black men and women who die.
Field said the mantra is ridiculed by some as obvious, but that apparently it’s not obvious enough.
“Let this sink in for a moment — black lives matter because black lives are the ones that are routinely dismissed,” Field said. “We say all lives matter, but we don’t stop to think black lives are those routinely treated as if they don’t.”
A new stage
With the national spotlight on race in 2014 and people more willing to talk about the issue, America may be entering a new stage in its saga of race relations that has been raging since Thomas Jefferson penned the words “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence.
That makes remembering King, his message and his non-violent approach even more important today.
Brown said this new stage of the civil rights movement is in the hands of the younger generation and the generation that came before needs to pass on an understanding of what King stood for to help them carry his mantle.
King’s confrontational, but non-violent approach sometimes provoked a violent response from those threatened by his demands for an end to discrimination and segregation.
McDaniel hopes those continuing the fight will walk in King’s footsteps of non-aggression.
“I hope that we remember that he was about peace and that there won’t be any kind of taking to the streets, any kind of casualties or anything like that,” McDaniel said. “That we will remember he was a very peaceful man and an advocate for peace and when you are out looting, killing someone or burning down a house or store you’re only hurting your neighborhood.”
Hope in a dream
Though King’s message was peace, he was shot outside a Memphis hotel and died at the age of 39.
His death, which was preceded by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and civil rights activists Medgar Evers and Fred Hampton sent Brown, who was a seminary student at the time, into a spiral of grief.
“I went numb and didn’t speak for two days,” Brown said. “Everything I believed in had been betrayed by that act of murder.”
Brown said the deaths of young men this summer have once again wrapped the country “in a cloud of national grief,” but he remains hopeful that even death will not silence King’s message and that his followers will achieve what he gave his life to dream.
“The problems endure, his message endures — that the ark of justice will eventually prevail, that goodness must be our touchstone and that social problems have to be solved in systematic ways,” Brown said.
“He said all of that and that message is still relevant today.”