Posted on January 25, 1995 in Washington Watch

It was just three decades ago that the American civil rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King succeeded in pressing the U.S. Congress to pass into law the Civil Rights Act of 1965. It was an amazing period of transformation and hope in American society.

Thirty years later, an entire generation of Americans have no recollection of the era of legal segregation and discrimination under which African Americans were denied the right to vote, use public facilities, eat at the same restaurants as whites, live in “white” neighborhoods or go to “white” schools. Even fewer Americans know that the despised system of Apartheid that governed the lives of South African blacks was based on the racist system that had been imposed on African Americans in the South of the U.S. and which lasted almost 100 years.

The civil rights movement led by Dr. King exposed the evils of segregation in the South and challenged whites in the North to face up to their own less formal system of social discrimination that denied African Americans rights in almost every sector of U.S. political and social life.

The decade of the 1960s was a time of great hope and change. Two Democratic Presidents, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson moved, at first with hesitation but ultimately with great vigor, to make real the promise of equality and justice for African Americans.

Schools were ordered to be desegregated and racially integrated. And where racist state governors and mayors resisted, federal soldiers were used to escort African American children to school. Restaurants and other public places were ordered desegregated and racist housing laws were abolished. And in 1965, when the voting rights of African Americans were guaranteed, race could no longer be used as a basis for denying the right to vote or to impose barriers which made voting more difficult.

The non-violent mass movement of hundreds of thousands, led by Dr. King, energized and gave hope to African Americans, challenged the conscience of the nation’s leaders and reshaped the U.S. legal landscape.

While all of this must be recognized as positive and significant steps forward, it must also be understood that 30 years later African Americans remain disproportionately poor, crowded into increasingly dilapidated inner city ghetto housing, and victims of racial bias in the economic, social and political spheres.

It was 32 years ago that Dr. King spoke of his dream from the steps of Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital, where he said:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: `We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’ ...I have a dream that my four little 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.”

Today, King’s dream is still not a reality for the majority of African Americans in the U.S. And, moreover, there have been some reverses of the progress that was made in the 1960s.

Government-led programs to produce integration have made white bitterness as a by-product. What are called “affirmative action” programs designed to give African Americans compensatory opportunities to make up for the opportunities denied to them during the three centuries of slavery and institutional racism, have also produced a feeling among some whites that they are being denied opportunities, that such programs have gone too far and must be stopped or reversed. And while this sentiment is particularly prevalent in the South, it is a national phenomenon.

From the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the support it received from Democratic Presidents and the Democratic Congress, there has been an erosion of southern white support for the Democratic party. Republicans have actively courted these alienated white voters (a disproportionate number of whom are men). As the November elections demonstrated, the shift southern white voter allegiance to the Republican party produced the Republican takeover of Congress. This shift will result in a negative impact on federal social programs primarily targeted to assist African Americans.

Republican victories based in part on calling for an end to those social programs designed in the 1960s have caused even some Democrats to abandon this agenda. African Americans are watching these changes, which are causing them to feel even more isolated as they watch support for their concerns fade in Washington, even in people who were once considered allies.

Earlier in this century, Langston Hughes, an African American poet, wrote:

    “What happens to a dream deferred
    Does it dry up
    Like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore – ...
    Maybe it just sags
    Like a heavy load.
    Or does it explode?”

The effects of these denied dreams on African Americans, of their growing sense of frustration and loss, and of what has now become endemic poverty and deprivation, have been devastating.

As Reverend Jesse Jackson, an early follower of Dr. King, and one of the leading voices in the African American community today, has noted that the prolonged pain of African Americans has become internalized and has produced self-destructive behavior, especially among the young. In a speech on the crisis facing African American youths, delivered a year ago, Reverend Jackson observed:

”...The combination of social and economic neglect on the one hand and aggressive negative rhetoric and actions on the other – by both political parties, the private sector, our education and health care systems, along with inadequate housing and environmental racism – over a protracted period of time, has resulted in turning serous problems into institutionalized conditions with violent consequences. It has produced an underclass of people with aggressive negative self-esteem…. They value neither their own life nor the life of another.”

The statistics are overwhelming and disheartening. African American unemployment remains more than twice that of whites (13.8% to 6.2%). Among young African American men, aged 18-35, unemployment rate is 31%. The percentage of African American families living below the official poverty line is a staggering 33%, while only 11% of white families are poor. This deep disparity exists even among those who work. The average white family income in $40,000, while the average income for an African American family is only $22,000.

And these statistics are just the tip of an imposingly negative iceberg. The desperation of African Americans can be found in any social or economic statistic one might choose. African American life expectancy, for example is seven years less than that of whites, and African Americans infant mortality rates are three times higher than that of whites.

Long term poverty and lack of employment opportunity suggested in these statistics has produced a climate in our inner cities of despair and anger – and crime. The number of African American males in prison is higher than the number enrolled in higher education. In all, 26% of African American men between the ages of 16 and 35 are either in jail, on probation, or on parole!

The wonder of these statistics is that, for the most part, this issue has virtually dropped off the national agenda. There is a shocking lack of attention being paid to the effects of the deferred dream by the leadership of both political parties.

As I have noted before, it is possible to live in Washington, DC (or just about any other major U.S. city, for that matter) and know little of the plight of the majority of African American community – which comprises two-third’s of the city’s population. Because of residual segregation and the effects of the long-term poverty, the African American ghetto is physically separate from “white” neighborhoods, the downtown shopping area and the business center where most whites work.

The problems of the ghetto (crime, the brutality of daily life, poverty and unemployment) are read about, but they are not experienced or even seen first-hand by most Americans.

Whites are concerned about crime, afraid of drugs and violence – but they are not “their” problems – the solution proposed by conservatives is more prison and stiffer penalties, including more death sentences. Little attention is given to how to address and solve the systemic nature of these problems.

A further result of this situation is a growing restiveness and anger in the African American community, where radical and militant leadership (like that of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan) is competing with those, like Jesse Jackson, who have come to be viewed by some angry African American youths as discredited and “co-opted by the white establishment.”

One generation after Dr. King, the dream is still a dream – and, for too many, reality is a nightmare. A new generation of African American leadership continues to present to the U.S. national conscience the challenge of the slain civil rights leader.

It is a two-pronged challenge.

To their own African American constituency they present the challenge, in the words of Jesse Jackson, “to rise up and stop the killing, rebuild the community, protect and save the children from violence and despair.” It is a moral challenge of self-help. As King himself had noted, it is the oppressed themselves who must first decide if real change is to come, and change themselves.

But to the U.S. government the civil rights leadership of the 1990s presents a different challenge: to create employment opportunities in the inner cities, to rebuild the infrastructure of the cities, to provide adequate health care and education – in other words, to restore hope in the dream by promise of American real to all of its citizens.

Three decades after the high point of the civil rights movement, the dream of Dr. King has not been realized. But it is clear that as America celebrated King’s birthday last week, that millions of Americans of both races remain committed to the dream and the vision of the dreamer.

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