Fifty years ago today, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of more than 200,000 people in Washington.
The speech became the historic keynote of one of the largest political rallies for civil rights in U.S. history. The sound bite history best remembers – “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” – came 11 minutes into King’s 16-minute speech.
King said much more that day. He spoke of the black communities living in poverty amid America’s material prosperity, and of the need to end segregation and discrimination immediately because freedom denied one group in America is freedom denied to all.
King spoke of his belief in nonviolence and of his dream that Americans of all races one day would be united in the brotherhood of freedom.
Were he alive today, he no doubt would say that America’s journey to “the sunlit path of racial justice” is not over.
There has been progress. Jim Crow is dead. So are laws aimed at disenfranchising blacks. Racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan have been marginalized. Police no longer would turn attack dogs and fire hoses on black protesters, as they did in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963.
But many blacks and other minorities still complain of police harassment for “driving while black” or “driving while brown.” They still suffer the suspicions of strangers, as the case surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin showed.
The ghettoes remain, as does the segregation, which is enforced in practice rather than by law, and as much in the Chicago region as any in America.
Many of the neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides are more than 90 percent black, along with many suburbs. In some of those neighborhoods, workers are needed to ensure that local children have “safe passage” to cross gang territories to get to school.
It is dramatically different from the walks and bus rides taken by many of the children in our communities to their neighborhood schools. It is not equality of opportunity.
The effects of 300 years of slavery and state-sponsored discrimination cannot be undone in a mere 50 years. But we must keep striving and working toward that day when we all will be “free at last.”