Martin Luther King, Jr.: How would American life be different without him?
Institutional racism in the United States has declined greatly thanks to the work of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet 'we have not reached the promised land MLK talked about,' says one scholar, nor has the economic equality King sought for all races been achieved.
Awaiting a panel discussion titled, â€śWhat if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had Tweeted the Civil Rights Movement,â€ť Franklin Henderson sits in the darkenedÂ Steve AllenÂ Theater, talking about the life he didnâ€™t have to lead because of King.
â€śWe didnâ€™t have a poll tax inÂ Miami,Â FloridaÂ where I grew up or a lot of the other hurdles blacks had,â€ť says the retired, Past National President of the Ninth & Tenth (Horse) Calvary Association. â€śHe brought civil rights inÂ AmericaÂ a very long way.â€ť
â€śBut not far enough,â€ť says his wife, Doris. â€śThere is still a long way to go.â€ť
The two comments echo the discussion today among scholars, activists, and African American community leaders in cities acrossÂ America. A brief newsreel of civil rights marches, the fire hosing of blacks in the streets, and the discriminatory practices of the South sets the backdrop for the eveningâ€™s discussion of how todayâ€™s social media â€“ as harnessed by several countries during the Arab Spring â€“ would have eased the ability of King to organize his marches and boycotts.
But would it have lengthened his legacy?
â€śThere are lots of whites, Latinos, and African Americans themselves who thought that with the election of Barack Obama, we had ventured into anÂ AmericaÂ without racism,â€ť says history professor Maghan Keita, director of Villanovaâ€™s Institute for Global Interdisciplinary Studies. â€śYet, here we are, four decades after King, with encampments in public places still calling for the kind of equality he was after.â€ť
President Obama has weighed in with his official proclamation of the federal holiday.
â€śOn 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 anÂ AmericaÂ that ensured the true equality of all our people,â€ť says the presidential declaration. â€śFrom the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a movement that would push our country toward a more perfectÂ Union.â€ť
Interviews with scholars, academics, and sociologists across the country show that assessment under question.
â€śFor most whites the playing field has been leveled and what has cemented this perception in theÂ psyche of most whites was the election of a black president,â€ť addsÂ Dr. Charles Gallagher, Chair of the Sociology Dept. atÂ La SalleÂ University,Â who studies race and ethnicity.Â Yet, he adds in an email, â€śthe socialÂ science data isÂ unequivocal: institutional racism continues to shape the life chances of racial minorities inÂ America. We have not reached the promised landÂ MLK talked about, but much of whiteÂ America nowÂ believes we have.â€ť
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.
â€śPeople shouldÂ draw from the legacy of King the drive to live out their own American dream,â€ť says Brian Bellamy, who teaches race, religion, and identity at theÂ UniversityÂ of New Haven. â€śDo 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.â€ť
Several mention this yearâ€™s commemoration should include a new push toÂ audiotape, videotape, and chronicle the stories of King and the Civil Rights era while those that lived through it are still alive.
â€śHistory is very slippery and easily lost and forgotten,Â Â so it is the archival function which needs to be accelerated, not just the focus on Kingâ€™s great achievements,â€ť says Northeastern University law professor, Margaret Burnham, founder ofÂ Â The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ).
Her school sponsored a talk Friday by Isabel Wilkerson,Â former New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of â€śThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.â€ťÂ Â Based onÂ scores of interviews she did across the country, WilkersonÂ spoke on where and how African Americans struggled to build new lives outside of the South. She also touched on how northern cities came to incorporate music and culture that might not have existed if not for King.
â€śShe interviewed hundreds of people whose stories have never been told,â€ť says Burnham, â€śand that is a vital part of what others must focus on as well before itâ€™s too late.â€ť
Asked what is less known or underappreciated about King, some say it was his ability to execute nuts-and-bolts organizing with diverse organizations that came together during the civil rights era.
â€śThere is appreciation of his religious thought and his political philosophy of non-violence, but often overlooked is his management skills,â€ť says Dennis Simon, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
Professor Simon says Kingâ€™s first post of importance was a diverse contingent of groups that included ministers, labor leaders, and a womanâ€™s council, called the Montgomery Improvement Association.
â€śThis is where he went into the trenches and learned how to deal with people, how to deliberate and come to decisions, how to develop political strategy, and how to frame it in a viable narrative for the media,â€ť says Simon.Â â€śWe are all the beneficiaries of what King learned in this crucible.â€ť