Mainly, we remember Dr. King as a prophet of non-discrimination. If the government treats black folks and white folks alike (which it does not always, even today), we tell ourselves that we have lived up to Dr. King's mighty vision. But Dr. King, and the civil rights movement as a whole, wanted much, much more for America.
A black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy a one in six chance of the same fate. The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world: 7.1 million adult residents -- one in 33 -- are under some form of correctional supervision including prison, jail, probation, or parole. Michelle Alexander writes in her bestselling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that there are more adult African Americans under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. In 2011, our state and federal prison population exceeded that of the top 35 European nations combined. Something's very wrong with this picture.
How far have we come on the road from slavery to freedom isn't just a rhetorical question 150 years later. A people who don't know their history are more likely to repeat it. The resurgence of hate crimes and emergence of mass incarceration of males of color remind us that freedom requires constant vigilance and justice needs a fire that burns in all of us. I believe that we are in the second post Reconstruction era. Although some forms of continuing racial intolerance are overt, some forms are subtle, covert, technical, political, and very polite. Wrapped up in new euphemisms, better etiquette and clever political rhetoric, it's still, as Frederick Douglass warned, the same old snake. Let's call it out systematically, oppose it nonviolently, and move forward on becoming a free and just nation.