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Do We Still Have a Dream?

By Doug Trapp · January 11th, 2001 · Burning Questions
The birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is a national holiday. Blatant racism has been eliminated from the law. More than three decades after his assassination, does King's crusade still have relevance?

King's "I Have A Dream" speech is world-renowned, taught in schools, the most famous words the civil-rights leader spoke.

"I have a dream that my four 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," King said.

He called for equal access to hotels and restaurants and hoped for a day when blacks and whites could work, pray and live together.

King's dream is still the ultimate goal, according to Rev. Damon Lynch III, pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church in Over-the-Rhine. But the focus is no longer on changing laws.

"Our fight now is economic," Lynch says.

Before desegregation, the nation's cities included top-to-bottom black communities, such as Harlem, where blacks not only lived, but owned property and businesses. But no more.

"Most of Harlem is no longer owned by anyone of color," Lynch says.

With integration, some of the economic clout blacks once enjoyed evaporated, because blacks are no longer confined to local businesses, Lynch says. Whole communities still exist for other minorities, such as Chinatown; but some would argue there are no longer black communities, even though many neighborhoods have majority-black populations, Lynch says.

Marian Spencer, who in 1983 was the first black woman elected to Cincinnati City Council, agrees that more emphasis on training black entrepreneurs is needed. She agrees that King's dream is still the ultimate goal.

"The dream just needs implementing," Spencer says.

Efforts to improve race relations also need to focus on one-to-one relationships between members of different races, Spencer says.

The U.S. Supreme Court desegregated public schools, but that didn't produce equality in education.

"The majority group moved to the suburbs," Spencer says. "The laws were changed, but the attitudes were not."

Americans need to move beyond celebrations of King's holiday and figure out how whites and blacks develop negative attitudes toward each other, Spencer says.

"In the final analysis, there's a freeing of us all when we can relate openly and honestly with each other," she says.

The National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center is a big step in the right direction, according to Judge Nathaniel R. Jones of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Americans should remember the fight for civil rights didn't begin and end with King's life, but began during Reconstruction after the Civil War and continues today, Jones says.

Part of the remaining work is weeding out institutionalized racism, such as the voting disparities that turned up in Florida in November and racial profiling by police, according to Jones.

Anne Braden, a white civil rights-era journalist and author, says there's more to King's story than usually told. In 1954, 18 months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, Braden and her husband bought a house for a black couple in an all-white Louisville neighborhood. The house was bombed.

Braden points out King called for nothing less than a complete makeover of society as the Vietnam War escalated.

In "Beyond Vietnam," a 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York, King asked black Americans to refuse to serve in the war and called for a wholesale change in American values. His words were prophetic of the 1980s era of greed; but for some reason, this part of King's philosophy isn't emphasized.

"We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society," King said. "When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered ... True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

This later vision of King's needs more emphasis, according to Braden.

"That legacy, to me, is the real legacy of Dr. King," she says.

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.



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