It's worth remembering on this day that King's dream is incomplete. We've come a long way, but there's still a ways to go. In an article last year, Mara Voukydis asked, WWMLKD: What Would Martin Luther King Do?
Decades ago, King spoke of millions of Americans "smoldering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society." This still rings true in 2005. In the past four years, some gains made in the nineties have been lost. In 2000, the Black unemployment rate dipped to an all-time low of 7%. Now more than one out of ten Black Americans is unemployed, as compared to roughly one out of twenty whites. The familiar call for personal responsibility loses its momentum when a person tries desperately and is unable to find work.
Income levels and poverty rates also worsened since 2000. The number of families in poverty fell rapidly during the nineties for all groups, but especially fast for Latinos and Blacks. Much of that progress has been lost in the past four years. As for earnings, the average Black income was 65% of white income in the year 2000, but 62% of white income in 2003. The first Bush administration blocked Congressional efforts to increase the minimum wage.
Some have said that it's enough that we have outlawed racial discrimination, that the ongoing problems of African Americans are their own fault, and that affirmative action (for example) is unfair discrimination which King would have opposed. However, King argued that it's not enough to end today's prejudicial treatment. We must make up for the wrongs of the past:
Whenever this issue [compensatory treatment] is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree, but should ask for nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but is not realistic. For it is obvious that if a man enters the starting line of a race three hundred years after another man, the second would have to perform some incredible feat in order to catch up.
A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis. (Wikipedia .)
Let us also take from King's example the tremendous potential of religion. (This one's for you, Sadie Lou.) I spend most of my time criticizing it here in a time and place where religious fundamentalists seem driven by more by hatred than by love, but King's religion should be an inspiration to all religious people, and his life an inspiration to everybody, religious or not. Instead of fighting against gay rights, instead of fighting the use of condoms in Africa, instead of wailing about the so-called "War on Christmas," King fought for love and freedom:
We cannot be truly Christian people so long as we flaunt the central teachings of Jesus: brotherly love and the Golden Rule.
The spirit of Lincoln still lives; that spirit born of the teachings of the Nazarene, who promised mercy to the merciful, who lifted the lowly, strengthened the weak, ate with publicans, and made the captives free. In the light of this divine example, the doctrines of demagogues shiver in their chaff.
America experiences a new birth of freedom in her sons and daughters; she incarnates the spirit of her martyred chief. Their loyalty is repledged; their devotion renewed to the work He left unfinished. My heart throbs anew in the hope that inspired by the example of Lincoln, imbued with the spirit of Christ, they will cast down the last barrier to perfect freedom. And I with my brother of blackest hue possessing at last my rightful heritage and holding my head erect, may stand beside the Saxon--a Negro--and yet a man!
--from The Negro and the Constitution