In this writing, excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have Dream speech will be used to contrast his words to where Blacks in America find themselves today.
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.
But 100 years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
We are now 50 years removed from that historic day; from that historic speech and Blacks in America are still bound by “the manacles of segregation” and “the chains of discrimination.” For most of the 15 leading causes of death including heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, hypertension, liver cirrhosis and homicide, Blacks have higher death rates than Whites.
Could Dr. King have envisioned, or could he have imagined that although infant mortality has declined over time for both Blacks and Whites, the gap between the races is wider today than it was in 1950 – over a decade before the March on Washington?
Would Martin Luther King have agreed?
The island of poverty inhabited by people of color in America, which King spoke of, is as populated today as it ever was. Across this country, during 2007 and 2011, this covers the recession and the economic aftershocks, 43 million Americans — approximately 14 percent — lived in poverty. Nevertheless, not every group suffered equally. The poverty rate was 27 percent for American Indians, 26 percent for African Americans and 23 percent for Hispanics. Among whites and Asians, less than 12 percent were poor. The federal threshold for poverty is about $11,500 in annual income for an individual and about $23,000 for a family of four.
“And so we’ve come here today to dramatize an appalling condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we’ve come to cash this check – a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
How has America continued to default on that promissory note? When the prison industrial complex continues to chew up and spit out young Black males to the tune of nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million of those incarcerated and Blacks and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners as recently as 2008. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” is problematic when you only represent 12% of monthly drug users, but comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession. Is the American bank of justice bankrupt, by and large, when it comes to its sons and daughters of color? The fortunes and futures of our darker hued citizens don’t appear to hold the same promise as the rest of society.
“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Gradually human, gradually free and gradually American are the signposts that litter the road traveled by Blacks in America. The plodding granting of certain freedoms is now contrasted by the 50 years of a steady erosion of them. That the dirty little secret; the nefarious wink and nod; is that a hesitance to recognize the humanity of Blacks can lead to their humanity remaining an open question. So when the rights that were gained are in need of protection, retraction becomes the order of the day.
“But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: in the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
The United States of America: a modern day holocaust
The social constructs and policies that created our inner-cities and housing projects have played a significant role in where Blacks find themselves today. Yet, the violence that King urged the Black community to not use against their oppressors became a violence that tragically turned inward. Blacks were disproportionately represented as both homicide victims and oﬀenders according to 2011 data. The victimization rate for blacks (27.8 per 100,000) was 6 times higher than the rate for whites (4.5 per 100,000). The oﬀ ending rate for blacks (34.4 per 100,000) was almost 8 times higher than the rate for whites (4.5 per 100,000).
There should be no shortage of tear-filled eyes when we contemplate this modern day holocaust. The broken and unfulfilled promises of this nation crafted and constructed the conditions in which Blacks were forced to live – and they continue to. The fatigue of the struggle and the surrender of dignity has, essentially, decimated our cities and expanded our graveyards.
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights: “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied and we will not be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
The questions of “when will you be satisfied,” are still be asked of the descendants of slavery to this day. The broadcasters of bigotry and the pundits of prejudice continue to say that the measures used to address and redress past sins and present realities are not necessary. Those individuals have already succeeded in targeting and gutting affirmative action and voting rights; they have defended racial profiling and discriminatory sentencing. Those same voices continue to genuflect to disproven economic policies that have laid waste to the American economy as a whole and have wreaked even more havoc to American communities of color. And yet they still ask when.
This writer’s words will stand in stark contrast to the perceived solely-uniting words of Dr. King, but that has continually been used as misdirection by those who don’t wish to address the issues of race and racism. The lines regarding content of character versus color of one’s skin, ecumenical and ethnic unity etc. are the things that many people grab a hold to at the expense of the more activist ideals outlined in his speech.
The March on Washington, at the time, was in many ways considered a sort of insurrection – President Kennedy tried to discourage it from taking place and the Washington DC police prepared for it like a military prepares for a foreign invasion. The March and King’s speech wasn’t mainly about unity, but about the obstacles of injustice that was making unity impossible.
Yes, the thrust of Dr. King’s speech reached for a more perfect union of America and Americans, but to divorce it from its revolutionary aspirations is to render impotent. When we reduce a historical movement and moment to a few catchphrases and bumper stickers we turn Liberty’s shout into a whisper and Freedom’s walk to a crawl.
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