Published January 20, 2014
Fifty years is a long time -- just ask Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fifty years ago he had only just delivered, in August 1963, his historic "I have a dream" speech. He didn't know it but he was about to win the Nobel Peace Prize and see the United States Congress pass the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act.
It also marks 50 years since I was a little boy with a dad.
Fifty years ago my dad, with his brown skin, could not have been a political analyst for a major network.
He could not have been an editorial writer and White House correspondent for a major paper. I did those jobs for The Washington Post. And 50 years ago he could not have lived in an integrated neighborhood in most of America. I do.
The changing realities of my life as compared to my dad’s life is one of many reasons the United States has to be proud of the progress we as a nation have made for the civil and economic rights of African-Americans since the March on Washington.
However, like the ‘Eye of Providence’ that sits atop the unfinished pyramid on the Great Seal of the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” also sees a nation still struggling to make sure young people of every color can be born free of poverty, have get an education, and still move up and achieve their American dream.
There is nothing wrong with the truth that we as a nation are still at work at achieving true equality.
America is constant experiment in democracy, a constant reach to live up to the ideals expressed by the Founding Fathers of equality for all.
Civil rights leaders often dodge the answer to the question “How Far” we have come in 50 years. They don’t want to acknowledge how much has changed for fear that others will think race is no longer a factor. Race is obviously still a factor by rates of unemployment, poverty, infant mortality, incarceration and life expectancy.
But telling the truth about the great strides made in the last 50 years to achieve Dr. King’s vision of the sons of slaves and sons of slave owners sitting together, judging each other on the basis of character and not skin color, is an inspiring story even if there are some goals still over the horizon.
Just think about how bizarre it would have sounded 50 years ago if a speaker at the March on Washington predicted a black president shortly after the turn of the century.
On Sunday, Georgia Congressman John Lewis, the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March, spoke to that startling reality:
"I feel more than lucky but very blessed to be able to stand here 50 years later and to see the progress we have made,” Lewis said. “And just to see the changes have occurred. If someone had told me 50 years ago that an African-American would be in the White House as the president, I probably would have said 'You’re crazy. You are out of your mind. You don’t know what you’re talking about.' The country is a different country, and we’re better people.”
In fact, outstanding African-Americans have broken through doors previously closed to all people of color in the past 50 years.
In government, we have had two black Supreme Court Justices, several Cabinet secretaries, two governors, six senators and dozens of people in Congress. We have a black president twice elected by the Americans people – who, as many have noted, could have been owned by our first 16 presidents as property.
Top television shows, from “Oprah” to “The Cosby Show,” have had “cross-over” appeal that flies in the face of 50-year-old segregationist thinking.
Black, Hispanic, White and Asian people playing sports together is nothing radical today.
People of color, black and Hispanic, have won the Oscar, led major universities and taken charge of major companies, including American Express, Pepsi and Xerox.
To the people gathered in Washington 50 years ago that would have been one wild “Dream.”
Recall that the full name of the March was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Jobs and economic equality were a central part of the dream.
In August 2013, the New York Times featured a series of charts. They compared statistics from 1963 to 2013. There is cause for optimism in the statistics. But make no mistake, if you are born poor and black in America in 2013 you still face a very tough road.
Still, back then the gap in the poverty rate between whites and blacks was 28 points. Today, it is only 13 points.
While nearly 45 percent of blacks were in substandard housing in 1962, that number has shrunk to less than 10 percent today.
Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage would have been $9.54 in 1963. Today, it is a mere $7.25.
The unemployment rate in 1963 was 10 percent for blacks and 5 percent for whites. Today it is 14 percent for blacks and 7 percent for whites. As the Times notes, “Black unemployment has remained above 10 percent for a majority of the last five decades and is twice the rate for whites.”
One statistic – not included in the Times feature – was the out of wedlock birthrate. In 1962, the out of wedlock birth rate for blacks was about 20 percent. Over the last fifty years, it has risen to a tragic 72 percent.
These sobering statistics show that we still have a ways to go in fully achieving Dr. King’s Dream of equality.
The same can be said about the rate tragic rate of black-on-black crime.
I am reminded of the closing lines of Teddy Kennedy’s speech to the 1980 Democratic National Convention. Quoting the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, Kennedy declared:
"I am a part of all that I have met/ [Tho] much is taken, much abides/ That which we are, we are -- One equal temper of heroic hearts/Strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."
He concluded: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”
And so too, I hope for my sons (and, of course, my daughter) and their sons and all America’s children, that Dr. King’s dream never dies.
Happy birthday, Dr. King.
A version of this op-ed ran on August 28, 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech.