Living his dream? America remembers Reverend King
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in America. But, forty years after the assassination of the civil rights leader, is racial equality a reality in the USA?
‘To hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.’ This was Reverend King’s aim when he made the famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on August 28 1963.
Now, not far from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington where he delivered that speech, just such a stone exists: a granite statue of King himself was erected on the National Mall last October. That monument will be the centrepiece of the celebrations in the capital today.
Martin Luther King Jr., a pastor from Montgomery, Alabama, was largely responsible for the giant forward strides made in civil liberties in America in the 1950s and 60s. Organising mass-marches and public service boycotts, he led the protest that ended segregation on Alabama buses in 1955 following the infamous Rosa Parks incident.
He soon became a world-renowned public orator and the passionate speeches he delivered to those who gathered at civil rights rallies inspired millions to join his non-violent protest. In 1965 he successfully ran a campaign to grant suffrage to all black Americans.
Martin Luther King might have made racial segregation and discrimination at the polling booths a thing of the past, but how much better off are ethnic minorities in America today?
The average wealth of a white household is still roughly twenty times that of the average black or Hispanic household. A disproportionate number of blacks also end up in prison: though they make up only 14% of the total population, they account for a massive 40% of prisoners.
It took Coretta King, Reverend King’s widow, 15 years of constant struggle to get official approval for a government-sanctioned holiday in his honour. Politics, conspiracy and enduring racism proved serious obstacles along the way. The memorial statue took a further 28 years. The struggle for true racial equality in America may take longer still.
End of inequality?
Many will treat Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a chance to celebrate the end of civil inequality in the USA. There are those who believe that racial discrimination is no longer a serious problem in Western society. It is true that America has come a long way, largely thanks to King’s tireless work and inspirational leadership.
But many of King’s former friends and followers disagree with this stance. Quiet discrimination still has a profound effect on ethnic minorities in the West and, if justice is to prevail, they believe this day must serve as an inspiration to continue the fight.
- Should Martin Luther King Day be about celebrating progress on racism or about identifying challenges which remain?
- Which minority or group do you think suffers the most from discrimination in society now?
- Look for instances of injustice or discrimination (not necessarily racial) in your school or community. Write an inspirational speech protesting against this injustice and deliver it to the rest of your class.
- In a discussion group, see whether you can define the differences between racism, discrimination and inequality and explain how they relate to each other in society. Write up your conclusions.
Some People Say...
“Racism is a problem of the past, not the future.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- How is Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrated in the US?
- Many towns celebrate the national holiday with parades and Washington lays on a full schedule of entertainment and religious services. In 1994, Congress also made the day a national day of community service, encouraging everyone to take up a charitable project to help in their community.
- Is it celebrated in other countries?
- The day itself is not celebrated outside the US, but the man certainly is. King’s messages of equality, of generosity of spirit and of perseverance apply to individuals and communities worldwide. Just as he was influenced by the Indian rights campaigner Mohandas Gandhi, so everyone fighting for equality today can be inspired by King’s words and by his achievements.
- Rosa Parks
- In 1955, white and black people were segregated on buses in Alabama, meaning they sat in different sections. Rosa Parks was a middle-aged black woman who one day refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person. This symbolic move sparked a massive boycott of the bus company.
- The right to vote in democratic elections. There was legislation in place that prevented black people from voting in the Southern States of the USA until 1965.
- Civil inequality
- Inequality comes in many different forms. Civil inequality means that all people within a population are not given equal rights within the structures of the law. Social inequality means that one part of the population is seen as inferior by another part of the population. Economic inequality means that one section of the population is less well-off financially than another.