Fighting for Dr. King's Unrealized Dream

On Progress and the Continuing Problem of Racism

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Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers a speech to a crowd on October 16, 1965 in New York City. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, a quarter of a million people, mostly African Americans, gathered at the National Mall for The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. They came to express their discontent with the persistent racism of the nation, particularly that of the southern states where Jim Crow laws maintained racially separate and unequal societies. This gathering is considered a major event within the Civil Rights movement, and a catalyst for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for subsequent protests that followed, and for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This day is most well remembered, though, for a spontaneous description of a better future given by The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., during his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Prompted by Mahalia Jackson, who urged him to break from his prepared words to tell the crowd about his dream, King said:

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and 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 one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

The Philosophy and Practicalities of Dr. King's Dream

Dr. King's dream of a society no longer plagued by racism reflected the one he and other members of the Civil Rights movement hoped would be the result of collective efforts to end systemic racism. Taking account of the many initiatives that Dr. King was a part of, and leader to, during his life, one can see the components and bigger picture of this dream.

The dream included an end to racial segregation; an unimpeded right to vote and protection from racial discrimination in electoral processes; equal labor rights and protection from racial discrimination in the workplace; an end to police brutality; an end to racial discrimination in the housing market; minimum wage for all; and economic reparations for all people hurt by the nation's history of racism.

The foundation of Dr. King's work was an understanding of the connection between racism and economic inequality. He knew that Civil Rights legislation, useful though it would be, would not erase 500 years of economic injustice. So, his vision of a just society was premised on economic justice writ-large. This manifested in the Poor People's Campaign, and his critique of government funding of wars instead of public services and social welfare programs. A virulent critic of capitalism, he advocated for a systemic redistribution of resources.

The Status of the Dream Today: Educational Segregation

More than fifty years later, if we take stock of the various aspects of Dr. King's dream, it is clear that it remains largely unrealized. Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in schools, and a painful and bloody process of desegregation followed, a May 2014 report from The Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles found that schools have regressed to racial segregation over the last couple of decades.

The study found that most white students attend schools that are 73 percent white, that the percentage of Black students in mostly minority schools has risen over the last two decades, that Black and Latino students are mostly sharing the same schools, and that the rise in segregation has been most dramatic for Latino students. The study also found that segregation plays out across both race and class lines, with white and Asian students primarily attending middle-class schools, while black and Latino students are relegated to poor schools. Other studies show that black students face discrimination within schools that leads to them receiving more frequent and harsher discipline than their peers, which disrupts their educational process.

The Status of the Dream Today: Voter Disenfranchisement

Despite voter protections, racism still prohibits equal participation in democracy.

As A. Gordon, a civil rights attorney wrote for The Root, passage of strict voter ID laws in 16 states are likely to bar many Black people from voting, as they are less likely to have state issued ID than persons of other races, and are more likely to be asked for ID than are white voters. Cuts to early voting opportunities are also likely to impact the Black population, who are more likely to take advantage of this service. Gordon also points out that implicit racial bias is likely to impact decisions made by those serving voters when issues of eligibility come up, and noted that a recent study found that legislators in support of stricter voter ID laws were more likely to respond to questions from a constituent when that person had a "white" name versus a name signaling Latino or African American heritage.

The Status of the Dream Today: Workplace Discrimination

While de jure discrimination in the work place and hiring processes has been outlawed, de facto racism has been documented by numerous studies over the years. Findings include that potential employers are more likely to respond to applicants with names they believe signal white race than those of other races; employers are more likely to promote white men over all others; and, faculty at universities are more likely to respond to prospective graduate students when they believe that person is a white male. Further, the persistent racial wage gap continues to show that the labor of white people is valued more than that of blacks and Latinos.

The Status of the Dream Today: Housing Segregation

Like education, the housing market remains segregated on the basis of race and class. A 2012 study by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Urban Institute found that, though overt discrimination is mostly a thing of the past, subtle forms persist, and have clear negative consequences. The study found that real estate agents and housing providers routinely and systemically show more available properties to white people than they do to persons of all other races, and that this occurs across the nation. Because they have fewer options to choose from, racial minorities face higher housing costs. Other studies have found that Black and Latino homebuyers were disproportionately directed to unstable subprime mortgages, and as a result, were far more likely than whites to lose their homes during the home mortgage foreclosure crisis.

The Status of the Dream Today: Police Brutality

In terms of police violence, since 2014, nationwide attention has turned to this deadly problem. Protests against the killing of unarmed and innocent black men and boys prompted many social scientists to revisit and republish data that show unequivocally that Black men and boys are racially profiled by police, and arrested, assaulted, and killed by officers at rates that far exceed those of other races. Critical work by the Department of Justice has brought improvements to many police departments across the nation, but the unending news of police killings of Black men and boys shows that the problem is widespread and persistent.

The Status of the Dream Today: Economic Inequality

Finally, Dr. King's dream of economic justice for our nation is equally unrealized. Though we have minimum wage laws, the shift in work from stable, full-time jobs to contract and part-time work with minimum pay has left half of all Americans in or on the brink of poverty. The nightmare that King saw in the discrepancy between spending on war and spending on public services and social welfare has only gotten worse since then. And, instead of economic restructuring in the name of justice, we now live in the most economically unequal time in modern history, with the richest one percent controlling about half of all the world's wealth. Black and Latino people continue to lag far behind white people and Asian Americans in terms of income and family wealth, which negatively impacts their quality of life, health, access to education, and overall life chances.

We All Must Fight for the Dream

The resurgent black Civil Rights movement, operating under the slogan "Black Lives Matter," seeks to raise awareness of and combat these problems. But making Dr. King's dream into a reality is not the work of black people alone, and it will never be a reality so long as those of us who are not burdened by racism continue to ignore its existence and consequences. Fighting racism, and creating a just society, are things for which each and every one of us bears responsibility—especially those of us who have been its beneficiaries.

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Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Fighting for Dr. King's Unrealized Dream." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/dr-kings-unrealized-dream-3026196. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2017, March 2). Fighting for Dr. King's Unrealized Dream. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/dr-kings-unrealized-dream-3026196 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Fighting for Dr. King's Unrealized Dream." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/dr-kings-unrealized-dream-3026196 (accessed December 18, 2017).