James Werrell

We've made progress in past 40 years

When we say that race relations in this nation have improved since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated 40 years ago, we are obligated to recite the usual caveat: But we still have a long way to go.

Yet for those privileged and/or cursed to witness the historic events of the late 1960s and to have watched the changes that occurred since, optimism about fulfilling King's dream of a color-blind America may come easier. We have seen progress.

I have vivid memories of the day King was killed. But 40 years later, it is hard to fully summon the visceral feelings of anger, sadness, uncertainty and disbelief that millions of Americans, black and white, experienced when they heard the news. It was a feeling that might have been unique to the times.

The civil rights movement was evolving in 1968, and King was by no means its only spokesman. A younger, more belligerant group of black leaders, including Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Malcolm X and Black Panther co-founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, regarded King's philosophy of peaceful civil disobedience as too passive. Some went so far as to advocate violent revolution.

Race riots that left hundreds dead or injured and resulted in millions of dollars worth of property damages had rocked major cities during the summers -- "the long, hot summers," as they became known -- of 1964 through 1968. The rhetoric on both sides also was incendiary, making the recent contoversial statements by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright seem tame by comparison.

In fact, go back and read the speeches and sermons King was making in the late 1960s. Those familiar only with his "I Have a Dream" speech might be surprised at the anger and hostility in some of his lesser known oratory.

Critics have accused well-meaning blacks and whites of trying to soften King's rough edges and turn him into a saint. We are better off, they say, honoring the man who, in addition to being courageous and inspirational, also was conflicted, weary and full of self doubt. The man, with his all-too-human failings, is a more interesting historical figure than the saint.

In looking back at the day King was killed, it is crucial to note that changes in the civil rights movement were occurring simultaneously with the rise of antiwar protests, which also would split the nation. King, it often is forgotten, had become deeply involved in the peace movement just before he was killed.

Meanwhile, the backlash in many parts of conservative white America was intense. Support for the Vietnam War remained strong, and many whites were alarmed by the more radical cries of black power advocates.

Richard Nixon won the presidential election that year in part by using the so-called "Southern Strategy," which exploited racial tensions among traditionally Democratic white voters in the South to lure them to the Republican Party. Coincidentally, this also was the year that former Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran for president as the American Independent Party candidate. He won 10 million votes and carried five Southern states.

The death of King and its aftermath brought the nation's racial divisions into sharp focus. Along with the dignified public mourning, rioting by enraged African-Americans broke out in cities across the country. Many cities resorted to curfews and police cordons to quell the riots, and there was a widespread fear that the whole nation might be swept up in the violence.

America, on the day that King was assassinated, was a divided, angry, fearful and mistrustful nation. While some found comfort in the belief that this confrontational tack was one positive way to address issues of race, King's benign vision of a nation that judged people by their character rather than the color of their skin seemed beyond reach and even a little naive.

So, have we moved closer to fulfilling King's vision? Have race relations improved? Are we less divided than we were 40 years ago?

Absolutely.

Much of the hate and mistrust of 40 years ago has subsided. More importantly, new generations have grown up in a nation that no longer sanctions legal segregation of the races. And with each ensuing generation, race becomes less and less a divisive factor in our lives.

Forty years after King died, a black man is a serious contender for the presidency. Whether he wins or loses, that is progress.

King's dream seems less improbable, more attainable than it did 40 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.

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