“On a hot summer day nearly half a century ago, an African American preacher with no official title or rank gave voice to our Nation's deepest aspirations, sharing his dream of an America that ensured the true equality of all our people,” says the presidential declaration. “From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a movement that would push our country toward a more perfect Union.”
Interviews with scholars, academics, and sociologists across the country show that assessment under question.
“For most whites the playing field has been leveled and what has cemented this perception in the psyche of most whites was the election of a black president,” adds Dr. Charles Gallagher, Chair of the Sociology Dept. at La Salle University, who studies race and ethnicity. Yet, he adds in an email, “the social science data is unequivocal: institutional racism continues to shape the life chances of racial minorities in America. We have not reached the promised land MLK talked about, but much of white America now believes we have.”
Asked what they feel Americans should consider on this federal holiday of commemoration, many say activities should go beyond celebration to self-reflection and individual action.
“People should draw from the legacy of King the drive to live out their own American dream,” says Brian Bellamy, who teaches race, religion, and identity at the University of New Haven. “Do something that no one in your family has ever done before. Go to college, start a business. His vision was that all Americans should be able to achieve the dream. Do what you can as an individual to make that happen.”
Several mention this year’s commemoration should include a new push to audiotape, videotape, and chronicle the stories of King and the Civil Rights era while those that lived through it are still alive.
“History is very slippery and easily lost and forgotten, so it is the archival function which needs to be accelerated, not just the focus on King’s great achievements,” says Northeastern University law professor, Margaret Burnham, founder of The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ).