How far have we come? How far do we have to go?
Those questions are central to the meaning of the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. They are, essentially, the essential questions he posed himself during his all-too-short life.
King was a man of immense gifts. We can assume that the struggle to gain equality for all, whatever their race, religion or country of origin, would have occurred even if he had never been born. But it is difficult to conceive what it might have looked like, what words would have replaced King’s, the words that inspired a nation to embrace the civil rights movement more than 50 years ago and which still inspire us to move forward today.
King was one man. But he embodied a movement that encompassed thousands – from the Friendship Nine to the Freedom Riders, from Emmett Till to Medgar Evers, from Rosa Parks to the Little Rock Nine. And the celebration of his birth also is a celebration of those who sacrificed, sweated, suffered and sometimes died in the name of that movement.
But King is the icon, the central figure in this ongoing drama who symbolizes the cause and binds it together in the national memory. He was a man, but he also now is the monument to that cause – both literally, in the granite sculpture in the nation’s capital, and figuratively, as the iconic leader we honor today.
How far have we come? Even in his day, King acknowledged progress. He knew that the plight of blacks in America had improved since slavery and Jim Crow.
How far do we have to go? He was equally adamant that the fight was far from over, that while he could envision the day when black and white children would play together, when people would be judged by their character, not the color of their skin, the nation faced a great struggle before that vision could become a reality.
Today, half a century later, we must accept the same assessment: We have made progress but there is more to be done.
Yes, we have inched closer to King’s color-blind ideal. Integration in the public sector is universal. People of all races work together, play together, sometimes even worship together.
New generations are born innocent of the racism and hatred that so infested the nation during King’s life. And today, those children more easily retain that innocence, growing up without the prejudices that plagued their elders. And with each ensuing generation, race becomes less and less a divisive factor in our lives.
And the nation has elected a black president.
But the struggle continues. Racism has not been eradicated. Inequality remains. And too many people of all races remain impoverished, a problem on which King focused more keenly in the final years of his life.
King’s dream seems less improbable, more attainable today than it did 50 years ago. We have made strides in tearing down the foundations of institutional racism and shaking up the complacent social structure that accepted racism as a fact of life.
And yet ... we still have a long way to go.