25 Years On: Rev. M.L. King Day Yields Hope & Much Unfinished

01/17/2011 01:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Brian Levin, J.D. Director, Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, California State University

Milestones not only tell us how far we've come, but perhaps more importantly, they illustrate how far we still have to go. Less than half, 48% of Americans feel that Dr. King's vision has been met. Still, our nation is a vastly different one from the one that that Dr. King inhabited when he was born 82 years ago. During that decade the nation saw routine lynchings and mass racial killings in places like Tulsa, Oklahoma and Rosewood, Florida. The Ku Klux Klan had 4.5 million members and would count future President Harry S. Truman and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black among its ranks. African-Americans faced crushing segregation and near complete estrangement from all the levers of opportunity and advancement necessary for socio-economic assent. Even a congressman or a physician would have to sit in a segregated train seat. When I volunteered at my child's school recently I saw projects and images of American heroes that included President Obama, Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson. When Dr. King was born there were simply no African-American big city mayors, major league baseball players, federal judges, cabinet members, Nobel peace laureates, Oscar winners, or even college students at many of the nations most well known universities.

For the 25th anniversary of the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday there is much to celebrate, but so much more to be done. To be sure, our President is African-American, yet he was one of only three Blacks elected to the senate since reconstruction. And while many recent Presidents get their dose of criticism, the unsettling drumbeat of demonization and conspiracy mongering relating to President Obama is somewhat different. Much of the most acerbic criticism is not about what he is doing, but rather that his whole life is a lie--that he is by birthright and religion somehow both unpatriotic and inauthentic as an American.

Pulitzer winner Eugene Robinson writes in his new book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, that while there is an impressive transcendent Black upper echelon, of which the President is a part, there is also a disturbingly high number of abandoned poor in the economic underclass. Black unemployment at 15.8% is almost double the 8.5% of whites. The high incarceration rate of young African-American males appears to be influenced not only by higher offending levels in many poor urban communities, but also by a disturbing level of disparate treatment once contact with the criminal justice system commences, particularly with regard to drug possession. The life expectancy of African-Americans still trails that of whites by five years.

While hate crimes dropped substantially in 2009, hundreds of hate groups abound, and Blacks remain the single largest targeted group for hate crime in the United States with about one in three directed against them, despite being only about 12.5% of the population. Moreover, in 2009 many states with the highest percentage of African-Americans, like Georgia (11 hate crimes), Louisiana (13), Alabama (9) and Mississippi (2), have almost no reported hate crime, indicating a breakdown in enforcement.

African-Americans can proudly claim specific tangible achievements as a direct result of his marches and boycotts, however, the legacy of their native son extends to all who cherish the divinity of the human spirit. While assassinations, like that of Dr. King on April 4, 1968, are tragic milestones as well, the end of the journey still belongs to us. Thus, the most significant milestone of how far we've come, will not simply be written in black and white. It is only when we can honestly say that the blessings and opportunity for all our children to contribute to this nation's future would be the same irrespective of background, color, faith, sexual orientation, politics, or other characteristics that we have fulfilled his dream. While Dr. King the man, was wrongly taken from us, his lessons and life work remain a beacon for the rest of us still living to follow. As he simply explained, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." Amen.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Last Address, April 3, 1968

Senator Robert F. Kennedy Address April 4, 1968 on the Assassination of Dr. King

CBS Coverage of Death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4, 1968