Dr King’s dream ‘still an American fantasy’
As Donald Trump picks a fight with the last surviving speaker from the 1963 civil rights march, a powerful new analysis concludes “the gaping wounds of racial injustice” are as bad as ever.
John Lewis spoke at the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, DC, led by Martin Luther King. Today the 76-year-old is also a Democrat and a member of the House of Representatives.
On Friday Lewis weighed in on the debate that has engulfed American politics, saying that he thought the Russians had helped get Trump elected. Trump hit back, advising him to ‘spend more time on fixing and helping his district’. Predictably, a row erupted over Trump’s disrespect to a hero.
Today is Martin Luther King Day, a holiday that takes place on the third Monday of January every year. This year it has added significance: in just four days’ time Donald Trump will officially become president.
Only eight per cent of African Americans who voted in the presidential election chose Trump. Trump, of course, denies the accusations of bigotry that flock his way, but few can deny the symbolism of the first black president being replaced by a man who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.
America has had a black president. There are black CEOs of major companies. There are black billionaires. The officially endorsed racism that King fought against no longer exists.
But many argue that this progress does not mean that the racial divide has been healed. Black people in the USA are still poorer, more likely to be homeless, more likely to go to prison and less likely to go to college than the average American.
Writing in The New York Times, Khalil Gibran Muhammad says that a more just country cannot be created simply by ‘dressing up institutions in more shades of brown’. To heal ‘the gaping wounds of racial injustice’, he says, ‘we must confront structural racism’. America is in an era of ‘post-assimilation’, where ‘institutions are far more powerful than individuals’.
The history of the civil rights movement is littered with great names. As Jay-Z put it in verse: ‘Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run / Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly.’ But can individuals really get rid of deeply-held prejudice?
Of course they can, say some. The lives of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama have served as inspirations for millions of oppressed people to fight for their rights. Without King’s courage, it is possible that African Americans would still be treated by the law as second-class citizens. All movements need leaders.
The plight of millions of African Americans today belies this fantasy, reply others. Yes, some black people succeed, but we are yet to see significant systemic change. According to Muhammad: ‘The future is no longer about ’firsts’. It is instead about the content of the character of our institutions’.
- To what extent can one person change history?
- Is America an inherently racist country?
- The year is 2067. Write 500 words from the point of view of an African American. How much has society changed, and is racism still a problem?
- Make a timeline of the key dates in the US civil rights movement.
Some People Say...
“A country that elects a black president cannot be inherently racist.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- I’m not American. Does this matter to me?
- Absolutely. Questions about systemic racism are not unique to the USA. In the UK, black people are nearly three times more likely to be homeless than the average person, while 29% of black people between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed, compared with 16% of their white counterparts, according to the Institute of Race Relations. Such statistics raise the same questions over the extent of systemic racism in UK as in US society.
- How is Martin Luther King Day celebrated in the USA?
- Many town halls celebrate the holiday with parades and Washington puts on a full schedule of entertainment and religious services. In 1994, Congress made the day a national day of community service, encouraging everyone to take up a charitable project in their town.
- 1963 civil rights march
- One of the largest political rallies in human history. It is estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 people took part. On the second day of the march, Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech in front of the Lincoln memorial.
- House of Representatives
- The lower chamber of the United States congress. There are 435 representatives, with a certain number allocated to each state based on the state’s population. At the moment, the Republican Party controls both the House and the Senate.
- Third Monday of January
- In order to coincide as closely as possible with the date of King’s birth — January 15th 1929.
- Ku Klux Klan
- Often known as the KKK or ‘the Klan’, the Ku Klux Klan is a white supremacist movement in the USA. It historically used terrorism, physical assault and murder against its opponents — usually African Americans.
- Content of the character
- A famous quote from King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is his dream of a country where his children would ‘not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’.