Looking at Martin Luther King, Jr. Day through a new set of eyes

by jeffhilimire on January 21, 2013

I wonder what Martin Luther King, Jr. would think if he were here today. Would he think that significant progress has been made since he left us on that fateful day in April, 1968?

This is a question I wouldn’t have even considered a year ago. It’s embarrassing, really, that it took me being a part of Leadership Atlanta to finally start to see the reality that is all around me - that there is still a massive crater in this country between the Haves and the Have-Nots.

As I take some time today to think about this great man who had the bravery to stand boldly in front of people that so hated and despised him – because he didn’t look like them – I’m struck by a feeling that he would be disappointed in our progress toward equality. Not that we haven’t made progress, though that is more debatable than you might have thought, but that we certainly have not made enough progress.

Consider these statistics:

For every dollar of white per capita income, African-Americans had 55 cents in 1968 and only 57.5 cents in 2005, down 2 cents from 2002. At this rate, it would take African-Americans 581 years to achieve parity. ~ Source: University of California, Santa Barbara; U.S. Census Bureau; United for a Fair Economy.

Disparity in income has actually grown since 1954; the median African-American family income in 1954 was 55% of the white median, in 2002 this figure had grown to 62%. ~ Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract and Net Worth Report, 2002.

Despite equal rates of drug use proportionate to their populations, Hispanics are twice as likely as whites, and equally as likely as African-Americans, to be admitted to state prison for a drug offense. ~ Source: Ditton, P.M. @ Wilson, D.J. “Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons,” January 1999. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics

Although African-Americans make up only 14% of the population, they account for 72% of all routine traffic stops. ~ Source: Congressman John Conyers, Jr’s Official Website.

Among first time youth offenders, African-Americans are more than six times as likely to be sentenced by juvenile courts to prison than whites. ~ Source: The US Department of Justice.

Both African-Americans and Latinos are three times more likely to be poor than whites. ~ Source: US Census, 2010.

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I’ve come to realize that MLK, Jr. was entering the second phase of his mission when he was taken from us that day in Memphis. The first chapter of his work was focused on bringing equal rights to all people. The second phase was to strive for social and economic equality. Work such as the Poor People’s Campaign, which he had only just organized before he was assassinated, marked his move into this new area.  That torch was never fully picked back up and many statistics such as the ones above point to a shift that we may be moving in the wrong direction.

I’m still wrestling with my part in all of this. How I can help. What I can do. But at the very least, my pledge going forward is to take this day every year with my family and spend time reflecting on this amazing man, on his legacy and on ways we can do our small part in continuing his march.

I’ll leave you with this short snippet from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington in 1963.

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