WHAT would Martin Luther King dream of today?
It was 50 years ago Wednesday, during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, that King delivered what came to be called his “I have a dream” speech. He spoke, eloquently and powerfully, about the injustices that people of color faced in 1963 America. A hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, he said, “the life of the colored American is still sadly crippled by the manacle of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
King said this country needed to pay off its “promissory note” of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all — blacks included. He said he dreamed of an end to segregation and a day when his children would be judged by their character, not their skin color.
“This is our hope,” he said. “This is the faith that I will go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Half a century later, our guess is that King would find much to applaud but also much that is troubling.
We have an African-American president who was swept into office five years ago by blacks and whites alike. The nation's top lawyer, the attorney general, is black. Men and women of color occupy powerful positions in Congress, business, medicine, entertainment and professional sports. The likelihood of the American dream becoming a reality for a black person is greater today than it was 50 years ago.
And yet, there are great causes for concern — within the black community.
King might dream of a time when fewer black men were behind bars. The U.S. prison population is about 40 percent black; our nation's overall population is 12-13 percent black. In Oklahoma, blacks comprise just 7.6 percent of the state's overall population but nearly 30 percent of its prison population.
Some argue this is mostly the result of a criminal justice system skewed heavily against people of color. King might make that point himself. But if he were alive today, he might also say he dreams of a day when more black boys and girls have a father in the home because that gives them at least a fighting chance to succeed.
According to the Census Bureau, in 2011, 68 percent of black children in the United States were born to unmarried mothers. The consequences of this epidemic are clear. Not having a father increases the likelihood of children dropping out of school, abusing drugs or alcohol and going to prison. Girls without dads are more likely to become pregnant without being married.
King might dream of a day when more blacks had a better chance to succeed in school. Last week the company that produces the ACT entrance exam reported that only 5 percent of black high school graduates were deemed fully ready for college coursework. Five percent!
Ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary of King's speech, Oklahoma City civil rights leader Clara Luper reflected on how much had changed since the 1963 March on Washington. Luper, who died in 2011, attended the march along with two busloads of local young people, and spent her life trying to make this city a better place.
“Today we have blacks on the school board, we have blacks in the Legislature, we have blacks in City Hall, blacks in jobs they have never held before,” she said. “We can eat anywhere we want. We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”
No doubt King would agree.