Race in America, 50 Years after the Dream

In some ways, America has exceeded King's visions. In others, however, his to-do list remains far from finished

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I have spent much of the summer talking to people who witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech 50 years ago this month. While reaching back through time to understand that day, I collected a series of photographs of King on my computer. At some point I noticed something in these images. In most of them, King's arm is outstretched toward the crowd, hand held high, palm open. The way you might raise hands over someone in church who is standing in the need of prayer. As my reporting took me back to 1963--a year of tumult and bloodshed in the fight for racial equality--I realized that as King was reaching out over the crowd, he might as well have been reaching up to touch the sun.

The things he mused about in that speech were the stuff of fantasy in 1963. You needed more than just the audacity of hope to imagine that states "sweltering with the heat of oppression" could be "transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice." Even things that seem routine today--the idea that "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers"--were well outside the bounds of reasonable expectations in 1963. So how far have we come since that hot August day when thousands flocked to Washington? Has King's dream been achieved?

In some ways the America of today has even exceeded what he allowed himself to envision. Fifty years after King delivered his speech, another black man will stand at the Lincoln Memorial to address the masses--this time at a lectern embellished with a presidential seal. And the crowd assembled to hear Barack Obama will include women, minorities and immigrants who have climbed a ladder of upward mobility that simply did not exist five decades ago. There will also be people in that crowd who can look into their own past and remember a time when they once enforced or embraced segregation, not necessarily out of hatred but because that is just the way it was. Rabid segregationists may have been the pistons that kept Jim Crow segregation humming, but apathy and the go-along-to-get-along mentality fueled the engine of racist America.

King knew that, and it is why throughout 1963 his speeches, his interviews and his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" were aimed not just at dispossessed blacks but also at "do nothingism" among moderate whites who he said were "more devoted to 'order' than to justice." His words at the Lincoln Memorial were directed not only to the assemblage but also to the much larger and largely white audience that would be listening on the radio or watching black-and-white TVs. When you look at those two historic tent poles spanning a half-century--the preacher and the President--it is clear that irrefutable aspects of King's dream have been realized. King's lawyer Clarence Jones, who helped draft the March on Washington speech, said those who worked closely with King "never contemplated the possibility of a black President in our lifetimes."

But as we measure progress since that sweltering day in August, are we using the right mile stick?

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