It is almost been 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his most famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. It symbolized the dream of equal opportunity and a chance to rise to the limits of one’s abilities and initiative. Had he lived, Dr. King would be pleased that for an increasing number of black Americans his dream has become reality.
Prior to 1960, it was rare to find large numbers of blacks in offices of corporations, banks, in the classrooms of elite colleges or residing in affluent suburbs. People of color were generally isolated from white-collar opportunities in both the public and private sectors. Their primary employment was in unskilled manufacturing or service jobs. Only about one-fifth of blacks had finished high school.
Dr. King ignited a dynamic diversity across America that opened doors that were previously closed. The change was ushered in by major civil rights legislation that essentially barred discrimination in public accommodations, transportation, education, employment and removed legal barriers to jobs and opportunity.
Black elected officials were almost non-existent in Mississippi during the 1960s. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended disenfranchisement of blacks from the voting process, especially in the South. What was then described as the most segregated state is now home to more black elected officials than any state in the union. The Housing Act of 1968 banned discriminatory practices when buying or renting property.
In the ensuring years, blacks have made remarkable progress on many fronts — most notably, the emergence of a substantial black middle class. Overcoming extreme disadvantages, blacks made enormous gains in education, sharply narrowing the gap with whites in years of school completed. Recognizing that education was the pathway to a brighter future, black professionals used it as an impetus to make their way to the top ranks of many businesses, even as heads of Fortune 500 companies.
Dr. King would see that America looked past skin color and racial considerations and elected Barack Obama the nation’s first black president. He would have seen other blacks transcending race while serving in some of the country’s top cabinet positions. Gen. Colin L. Powell, a four-star general would also serve as Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command and as the only African American to serve as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He would have witnessed Condoleezza Rice become the first African-American and first woman Secretary of State and the first woman to serve as National Security Advisor. Eric Holder is currently serving as the first black United States Attorney General.
As we commemorate King’s legacy, the promise of his dream remains unfulfilled for far too many black Americans. Much of the momentum that existed prior to the 1980s appears to have regressed, if not obscured by the pathology of the black underclass. Too many families fail to be the source of “social capital” that stresses common values and moral virtues such as honesty, responsibility, respect for authority and other people. Too few families place a high value on education.
Many men are not critical links in the black family chain. How to be a responsible father is something a lot of contemporary young black men know little about. Prison is pretty much routine, if not a badge of honor for urban youth in communities where a criminal element operating outside of law enforcement and standards of common decency is bred.
Most blacks are not poor or criminals. Nonetheless, exclusive of racial prejudices, advancement for more than a third of the black population is impeded by low educational attainment and high unemployment.
On balance, Dr. King could find comfort in knowing that the movement he led tapped into the conscience of America in profound ways. No longer are the majority of black Americans isolated at the margins of society. His dream is there for those who choose to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities this great country has to offer. For that, all of America should be proud.