How Far We’ve Come, How Far We Must Go Since MLK’s Death 50 Year Ago

by Georgia McDade

April 4, 1968… I was alone in my dormitory room at Atlanta University in Georgia when I heard over the radio that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot and killed.  I immediately stopped reading my book and laid down on my bed. 

All I remember about that night is the exceedingly quiet hall.  Now fifty years later, my memory is full of life reminiscing about the time both before and after Dr. King’s death. The biggest difference for me between the two is what I knew about and expected from the country prior to that bullet taking his life and what I know about and expect from the country today. The following is a list of differences I see and feel:

  • More places of worship have more diversity than they did in 1968 although Dr. King’s statement that 11:00 a. m. is the “most segregated Christian hour” is still true. Too many of us allow our religion to separate us when a brief study would show there are similarities.
  • Since the assassination, more Americans have been killed by guns than have been killed in all the wars, from the Revolutionary War through Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the many conflicts. One group of Americans ignores the word “militia” in the 2nd Amendment; the other thinks we need more restrictive laws to control who has a gun and what kind of gun.
  • Though riots took place in at least 100 cities following the assassination, marches are more common than riots today. Marchers are also more diverse.  In the women’s marches, especially, causes were considerably diverse: voting rights, income equity, wages, gun control, gerrymandering, money in politics, planned parenthood, education on every level, housing, net neutrality, healthcare, Black Lives Matter, immigration, police brutality, climate change, LGBTQ rights, incarceration, and the environment. Though several of these topics were discussed in ’68; today however, the number of citizens aware of most of them, if not all, is tremendous.  Countless persons via countless groups all over the country have taken up these causes and vowed to make a change.
  • In the 21st Century, gerrymandering is more sophisticated than in Dr. King’s time but is as detrimental as ever, possibly more than previously. Again, the electoral college went to a person not having the largest number of votes.
  • The Supreme Court, often more helpful than most state courts, decided 5 – 4 that the country had changed its racial attitudes so much that portions of the Voting Rights Act were no longer needed. Although millions more persons of color voted in 2008 than ever before, by 2016 voter suppression was as rampant as ever—and not just in the Southern states. In 2013, the Court rendered what may have been its worst ruling since the Dred Scott Decision (not a citizen, no standing in federal court, 1857) and Plessy vs. Ferguson (separate but equal, 1896). It gutted— a word used most often in news accounts—the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  According to the Center for American Progress, many persons were not allowed to vote for a variety of reasons. 

[In 2016,] the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression kept many Americans across the country from having their voices heard in the democratic process. 14 states had new restrictions on voting in place for the first time in a presidential election. Voters faced issues including strict voter ID requirements, cuts to early voting, problems with voter registration, and polling place closures. 

One 2014 analysis of voter ID requirements found a decline in voter participation of 2 to 3 percentage points attributable to the change. In addition, black voters across the country are, on average, forced to wait in line for twice as long as white voters—and a report from 2012 estimated that “long lines deterred at least 730,000 Americans from voting.” 

Though more of us have an easier time of voting, many of us still face barriers that much of the population never faces nor knows exists.

  • Depending on your measure poverty may be worse than in 1968. Not included in charts I located are the higher costs of food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education. Property taxes continue to push more persons out of their homes. Gentrification is on the rise in some areas. Dr. King was preparing for a Poor People’s Campaign; The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is now being organized by Rev. William A. Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis in 2018. “Like its predecessor, the modern Poor People’s Campaign is focused on what King described as the ‘triple evils’ of racism, poverty and militarism — with the addition of ecological devastation, a global crisis that disproportionately affects people living in poverty.”  Note Dr. King’s reference to the environment.  With the reduction in safety nets, more persons need more assistance.
  • Like Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Dr. King warned about militarism. Prior to King’s death, the U. S. refused to call Vietnam a “war” even though the conflict lasted through 3 presidential administrations.  With troops in Afghanistan since the early aughts, our country now finds itself in the longest “conflict” in our history. Depending on the source, the U. S. has spent as much as $5,000,000,000 on these non-wars.  Donald Trump seems convinced that the U. S. must show its military might.
  • As of 2008, the number and percentage of students of color enrolled in higher education has increased. More women—African American, Hispanic, and white—have bachelor’s degrees than men. Every group has more persons in college than in ’68.

The public sees more African Americans in more roles than ever before. More African Americans have political positions covering a broad span.  Most persons older than forty know there are more persons of color on television shows and commercials, all families are not heterosexuals, all families are not all black or all white.  Commentators are more diverse.  Stars of shows and movies are African Americans, some playing roles with which some of us can identify or admire. 

There are producers and directors, writers. People of color are on game and talk shows as contestants and hosts.  Black Panther has broken a number of records; perhaps more funds will become available for more projects.  More artists do their works their way and are shown in major galleries. Several sports are dominated by African Americans. 

A few of us have gotten mainstream awards.  Approximately a dozen African Americans have led Fortune 500 companies. There are more millionaires, especially in sports and entertainment. There may be as many as ten billionaires. Only one African American has been appointed to the Supreme Court since 1968.

Among our greatest accomplishments was the election of Barack Hussein Obama—only the third African-American senator elected—as the first African-American president. One day most of the country will realize Congress’ thwarting him on every turn was more detrimental than they imagined. We have the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and come April 26, the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s The Legacy Museum:  From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Alabama.

Doubtlessly, African Americans have indeed made strides.  But few would say we are where we want to be, ought to be, or have worked to be.  In so many ways African Americans are not treated as first-class citizens despite following the rules.  It was Dr. King who said the Founders wrote a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.”

That debt has yet to be paid, and many will never see it. In the last speech he would ever give, Dr. King maintained, “I’ve seen the Promised Land.”  Some folks believe Dr. King was talking about heaven; others believe he was talking about the here and now.  It seems that both could be true. However, more of us, far more than 63,000, 000 have to admit that Dr. King’s dream, like the promissory note, can become a reality and here.  It is for a great many. But believing and admitting as we luxuriate in our comfort does not help the millions who need the basics nor those clinging to the little they have. We have to work steadily so that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not merely nice sounding phrases but a reality. We can make it happen.

Georgia S. McDade, a fifty-year resident of Seattle and former professor of English.

Featured image is a Creative Commons licensed photo attributed to Ted Eytan.

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