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Chasing the 'Dream' Martin Luther King Jr. had a vision for America. How close are we? By S. Eudora Smith 1 | 2 | Next > advertisement Today marks the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. As we remember the man once described as the moral compass of the nation, one speech in particular continues to inspire us, its poetic refrain imprinted on the memory of America. I have a dream that one day … The soaring oration was delivered against the backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 250,000 gathered for the March on Washington. Since that historic moment on Aug. 28, 1963, "I Have a Dream" has become a bellwether for America's progress on race. Themes of justice, opportunity, unity, desegregation and discrimination are woven throughout the speech and serve as milestones in the quest for equality. Now, almost 45 years after the speech, America is a land of contrasts, with some dreams fulfilled while many others are deferred. "You see the signs of change," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of King's lieutenants during the civil rights era. "The change is not complete and it is in some cases slow, but we see evidence of morning time." The American public agrees. According to a recent MSN-Zogby poll, there is overwhelming agreement that race relations are better in 2008 than they were in 1968. How much better, however, depends on whom you ask. Eighty-six percent of whites say race relations are more unified now, compared to 66 percent of blacks. Jackson says the candidacies of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton show that the country is less reactionary when it comes to race and gender. "I see the seeds [King] sowed bearing fruit today," Jackson says. "The massive white vote for Barack; he is the conduit through which the newer, better America is expressing itself." So how close are we to the dream? Twenty percent of respondents in the MSN-Zogby poll say we're about halfway there. Twenty-four percent think the dream is now a reality, and 6.9 percent say we are nowhere close to the dream. The poll also sheds light on one obstacle to fulfilling King's dream: Americans don't agree on what challenges African-Americans face. Forty-six percent of African-Americans say the main reason blacks struggle to embrace opportunities is that they're still playing catch-up after years of oppression. Many white Americans, however, have a different view: 53 percent say African-Americans have failed to take responsibility for their own destiny. Only 18 percent of white Americans polled felt that rebounding from oppression impacted current opportunities. Justice: Is it worse? The Rev. Al Sharpton believes African-Americans as a whole have not made sufficient advances since King's speech. In particular, he says that last year's high-profile “Jena 6” case illustrates that African-Americans continue to struggle for equal justice. The case involved six black teenagers who were charged with assaulting a white classmate in the small Louisiana town of Jena. Many people viewed the charges against the teens as excessive and racially motivated. As a result, the case sparked national protests, and thousands of people, including Sharpton, marched in the streets of Jena. "The reason we were able to get 30,000 in Jena is because people see the disparity in the criminal justice system," Sharpton says. Michael Dawson, a University of Chicago political scientist, concurs that when it comes to justice, work still needs to be done. "There are areas in which it is worse in terms of discrimination than it was when Dr. King spoke in D.C.," Dawson says, pointing to the incarceration rate among black men. "The cases of police torture of African-American men that [Chicago] has been dealing with for the last several years and the instances of police brutality across the country, we still have problems in these areas," Dawson says. The incarceration rates for blacks are higher today than they were in the mid-'60s, research shows. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2006, the most recent statistics available, there were 3,042 black male prisoners per 100,000 black males in the U.S., compared with 487 white male prisoners per 100,000. CONTINUED: Discrimination and segregation: The struggle continues Chasing the 'Dream' (continued) < Previous | 1 | 2 advertisement Discrimination and segregation: The struggle continues According to the MSN-Zogby poll, 90 percent of African-Americans say they have experienced racial discrimination. This huge percentage likely wouldn't surprise Dorothy Brown, the city clerk for Chicago's court system, the second largest in the country. Although laws prevent overt discrimination and segregation, blacks still deal with both, Brown says. "As a whole we are not living on a lonely island of poverty," she says. "But Hurricane Katrina and [New Orleans'] Ninth Ward brought home to us that many of us have been left behind for whatever reason." Brown says King's words are as "powerful and on point" today as they were 45 years ago. "The speech almost brings tears to my eyes … it still resonates," she says. Fair housing laws make it possible for blacks to live anywhere, says Kale Williams, who worked with King on an open housing campaign in Chicago in 1966. Those laws have certainly helped address issues of segregation, though subtler barriers remain. Williams was one of several whites who stood with King and other African-American organizers during the civil rights movement. But today Williams says the type of multiracial housing effort he was a part of more than 40 years ago is less visible. "There has been substantial progress on the issue of housing discrimination," says Williams, formerly of the Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. "But there are still more subtle activities by some real estate agents — what is called steering. They just don't show the full market when a [black] family comes in looking for housing." Wealth: 'King died fighting for underclass' There is little disagreement, however, that the growth of the black middle class has been a demonstrable achievement of the civil rights era. "We now have the largest and most influential black middle class in American history, where we see broader occupations and more financially affluent in terms of wealth and income," says Dawson. "But you also see a large segment of the black workforce no longer working, working in service jobs, extremely high rates of unemployment." Still, the unemployment rate for blacks is 9.2 percent, compared with 4.4 percent for whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And in some urban areas, the figure rises to double digits. Sharpton says Americans should remember that King was shot while organizing support for striking garbage workers. "I would remind people that Dr. King died fighting for that underclass," says Sharpton, referring to the garbage workers as well as King's involvement with other labor and economic issues. Eradicating poverty also was part of King's vision. "And I would not say his dream is achieved until that statistic is eradicated," Sharpton says. Unity: King changed attitudes "There is a part of our [national] consciousness that got affected by King," says Squire Lance, a longtime political organizer who remembers when King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Lance emphasizes that whites' attitudes have been changed by the King years. The nation now has terms such as "diversity" that were not part of the public discourse before. While politicians such as Obama are riding victories with multiracial support, Dawson says research still shows deep racial divides among older Americans. "I would say that what we can hope for on this score is that there is a fair amount of evidence that the younger generation of Americans across the racial and ethnic lines are much more open toward each other and willing to come together for common causes," Dawson says. Sharpton also sees evidence of multiracial unity when it comes to fighting racial discrimination. "As one who has been in leadership of these events such as Jena, I know there have been far more whites in our efforts than the media report. The perception is a lot different than the reality," he says. YOU TELL US: How close are we to Dr. King's dream?
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