08/28/2013 01:11 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

With the 'Fierce Urgency of Now,' Striving to Realize MLK's Dream

"The moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice," the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said. Yet, 50 years after his speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the fairness Dr. King espoused throughout his career still is light years away.

I was a witness to that extraordinary day and time. With our Unitarian Church congregation of Peekskill, N.Y., my parents organized a bus trip to the March on Washington. The buses left Peekskill in the early morning of Aug. 28, 1963, part of a huge national caravan that was to converge on the nation's capitol.

My memories are as vivid today as they were on that day of hope and simmering emotions.

A young boy at the time, I brought to the March painful memories of the discrimination I experienced along with others of color; beatings I received while being called the "N" word. The sting and shame of racism and poverty weighed heavily on my brothers and me, and most assuredly on other black and brown children.

As we traveled south that day in August 1963 and entered Maryland, I noticed with growing discomfort the water fountains, restaurants and restrooms labeled "for whites" and "for coloreds." Though our bus was filled with both "majority" and "minority" Americans, we who were black had to learn to curtail our impulses to drink, eat or refresh where we pleased. We also had to increasingly steel ourselves against the hardened stares of whites as we moved deeper into the South. Television brought images of the civil rights movement into our living rooms, but it was quite a different experience that day for us black Americans on the bus, who were born in the North and now experiencing the southern realities of "separate but equal."

But it is a measure of the promise of America that I also remember the thousands and thousands of blacks who waved white handkerchiefs at us from their homes, apartments and streets in Washington, buoyed by the hope our arrival portended.

It was an uplifting experience, framed by the deep hope of many in a nation that was inextricably moving forward to address the challenge of racism. For me, for my family, for black and brown Americans and all who believed in the ideal of social justice, our hope was that a nation was finally recognizing the pernicious effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, injustice, segregation and racism. It was as if each person who 50 years ago waved a handkerchief welcoming our arrival felt Dr. King's "fierce urgency of now" -- the need to change policies that segregated and isolated all too many Americans in schools, restaurants, housing, jobs, swimming pools and even cemeteries, denying them the promise of America -- "until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." That day, Dr. King used these words of the biblical prophet Amos, which some feel have been unjustly neglected amid the eloquence of the "I Have A Dream" section of Dr. King's speech. He often thundered that black civil rights devotees would not be satisfied until "police brutality, disenfranchisement, lodging and [job discrimination], black ghettoization, and attacks on black self-esteem were abolished." By that measure, much work remains. Too many people of color are in prison, on parole or caught up in the court system -- primarily caused by an ill-advised and mostly ineffective "war on drugs" that began with former president Ronald Reagan, intensified with Bill Clinton and remain in force under President Obama. Many people of color remain disproportionately out of work, out of school and out of hope. Recognizing the persistence of racism in America, the U.S. government recently reported to the United Nations that, as a country, "we could do better" and cited the following data:
  • In the 2009-2010 school year, 74 percent of African-American students and 80 percent of Latino students attended majority-minority schools, where most of their classmates were nonwhite. An outcome of the deeply segregated and racially and economically isolated American education system is severe achievement gaps between students of color and white students.
  • Indigenous Peoples, African Americans, and Latinos are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States. Two-thirds of the 2 million prisoners in the United States are African American or Latino. The disparities can be linked to improper policing practices like racial profiling. Drug policy and drug sentencing also contribute by disproportionately targeting African Americans and Latinos.
  • People of color and Indigenous Peoples are also more likely to live near hazardous waste facilities, accounting for nearly half of all people of color in the United States living less than 2 miles from a hazardous waste facility.

Dr. King said it in Washington 50 years ago:

"Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive ... I say to you today, my friends, though, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."

Though much work remains in realizing the goals he sought, may his dream of justice and fairness for all people be realized in our country in the not-so-distant future.

The challenge remains a collective responsibility of individuals, families, government, the courts and institutions.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. As a nationally recognized expert in culturally relevant teaching, Dr. Cooper champions for improved educational opportunities for children of color. He can be reached at