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MLK to Obama: A dream realized?

The 45th anniversary of the Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most memorable speech coincides with the day when another African-American leader, Barack Obama makes a historic speech of his own.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968.  The following day King was assassinated on his motel balcony.Charles Kelly / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The dreamer in him envisioned a day when "Whites Only" signs would no longer hang in restaurant windows. A time when everyone's desire to vote would be respected. A time when blacks and whites would work, pray and live together.

He spoke of an America where people would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

"I have a dream," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, "that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed — 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."'

The 45th anniversary of the iconic leader's most memorable speech coincides with the day when another African-American leader, Barack Obama, makes a historic speech of his own — accepting the Democratic Party's nomination for president of the United States.

Is the convention's timing merely, as Obama's critics might suggest, political choreography at its shiniest, one more seamlessly staged performance by a "rock star" candidate?

Perhaps. And yet, it is also fitting: For if King inspired Americans to confront their bigotry or at least dream of a more perfect union, a candidate with Obama's profile surely seems part of that dream's fulfillment.

Does Obama's candidacy complete the circle, showing that we now live in a colorblind society? Many want to believe that our culture has moved beyond its racial problems, that the election of a biracial man would be a peculiarly American achievement — an affirmation of American ideals.

In some ways, the nation that Obama will address is visibly less divided along racial lines than King's America.

In King's day, racial inequality was legally sanctioned: Separate parks, restrooms, hotels, theaters, schools and drinking fountains were common in many areas; statutes forbade interracial sexual relations; African-Americans were beaten and lynched, sometimes with tacit public approval and even enjoyment.

The federal interventions of the '60s — the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Federal Fair Housing Act — reset the nation's parameters for "normalcy." Legal decisions, such as the Supreme Court's 1967 ruling knocking down a Virginia statute that barred whites from marrying nonwhites, opened the door to integration a bit more.

But in the four decades since King's speech, questions about the prevalence of racism in American life haven't abated, with blacks and whites deeply divided on how significant a role discrimination plays in keeping blacks from achieving parity with whites.

If the United States has entered a truly "post-racial" era, some wonder, then why do a few racial slurs made by a radio commentator (Don Imus) or over-the-top bits of sermons by a retired pastor (Rev. Jeremiah Wright) set off such alarm bells?

Why do we still hear about real estate agents who steer whites away from integrated neighborhoods, or how qualified black couples are turned down, without explanation, for an apartment rental? Why does the naming of a black CEO of a leading American corporation still raise some eyebrows?

"Everything has changed, and nothing has changed," on matters of race, says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, 86, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King and marched alongside his friend all those years ago.

"That's the paradox in which we find ourselves."

For years now, most Americans have told pollsters that although they believe racism to be a lingering problem, they themselves are not racist.

A year ago, a Pew Research Center survey reported that 82 percent of whites said they had a "mostly favorable" or "very favorable" opinion of blacks; 80 percent of blacks felt the same way about whites.

Similarly, about 94 percent of Americans recently polled by Gallup said they'd vote for a black candidate for president, up from 53 percent in 1967.

This all sounds lovely — but what then to make of other survey findings? For instance, African-Americans also told the Pew Center that they often face discrimination when applying for a job, renting an apartment or buying a house. Whites, by 2-to-1 majorities, said they believed blacks rarely face bias in such situations.

In his speech, King said blacks could not be satisfied "as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities."

Since then, Jim Crow has been outlawed in most public venues, though discrimination dies hard for some: In the largest public accommodation settlement ever, the Denny's restaurant chain in 1993-94 paid $54 million to settle three class-action suits for discriminating against African-American customers. Ten years later, Cracker Barrel restaurants settled a Justice Department lawsuit which said blacks were segregated from white patrons in seating, often made to wait longer for tables and sometimes denied service.

The participation of minorities in today's electoral process has "been quite remarkable compared to King's time," says David Bositis, a scholar of black politics and voting at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.

In 1969, there were nine blacks in the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives; today, there are 43, including two nonvoting members representing the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. During the '60s, there were roughly 300 blacks elected to state and local office; today, there are some 10,000, including about 300 black mayors.

During his "Dream" speech, King declared: "We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote."

Before the 1964 "Freedom Summer" registration drive in Mississippi, just 5.8 percent of blacks in that state could cast ballots. Since then, black turnout has risen steadily, and in the 2006 elections, African-Americans voted at higher rates than whites, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, though poverty still adversely affects black turnout.

But American politics has played on — and reflected — racial divisions, too.

Since the 1960s, America's two-party system has effectively been segregated, with blacks located mostly in the Democratic camp. Not a single Democratic presidential hopeful has won a majority of the white vote since 1964, the year Republicans put in place the so-called "Southern Strategy," using race-related wedge issues such as busing and affirmative action to polarize voters.

In 2006, when Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele ran for the Senate, the fact that they were black was mentioned in virtually every story. Race-baiting TV ads aired against Ford, who was narrowly defeated by a white opponent. (Interestingly, Steve Cohen, a white Democrat with extensive civil rights credentials who succeeded Ford in a majority-black Memphis House district, was himself the target of a race-baiting ad by a black opponent in the primary earlier this month, but won in a landslide nonetheless.)

States have passed new photo ID requirements for voter registration — which have been shown to disadvantage poor minorities — and have expanded disenfranchising offenses to include drug-related crimes of which a disproportionate number of minorities are convicted.

** FOR USE ANYTIME WITH MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY FEATURES - FILE ** The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his \"I Have a Dream\" speech during the March on Washington, D.C., oin this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo. The march was organized to support proposed civil rights legislation and end segregation. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, advocating nonviolent action against America's racial inequality. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in April 1968. (AP Photo)AP

Incidents of "caging" — a vote suppression tactic that gets blacks knocked off voter rolls if they fail to answer registered mail sent to homes where they no longer reside — are further evidence that "race is still dynamic in the political process," says Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in Atlanta.

There has been a surge in black office-holding at the state and local levels and in the U.S. House of Representatives. But it's also true that we currently have only one elected black governor, Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, and one U.S. senator — Obama, in Illinois.

Why is that?

The Voting Rights Act enables African-Americans to sue for the redrawing of a voting district's boundaries, if they show that an election plan dilutes minority voting strength.

This has helped blacks win specific, local races. But, McDonald says, "If you look around the South, for example, you'll see that most if not practically all of the blacks elected to state house and senate seats have been elected from majority-black districts."

However, "it's really very unusual for a black candidate who runs at the statewide level, in any jurisdiction at large, to get nominated or elected," says Chandler Davidson, a professor emeritus at Rice University. "That racial polarization is still there."

A century after the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery, King looked out over a quarter million troubled Americans who'd gathered before the Lincoln Memorial, and told them:

"One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

Indeed, in the early '60s, African-Americans' median income was 58 percent that of whites. Just 38 percent of blacks owned their homes, compared to 64 percent of whites. Two-thirds of black children lived in poverty; for whites, the figure was 14.4 percent.

African-American businesses were largely small, oriented to serving blacks, and shut out of the broader market. Black entrepreneurs, shunned by white lenders, relied heavily on the U.S. Small Business Administration for loans.

How much has changed in nearly a half century?

  • African-Americans' median income is just 61 percent that of whites, and blacks are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed and to lack health insurance as whites, government figures show.
  • Slightly more than 25 percent of blacks live below the poverty line; the poverty rate for whites is 9.3 percent, according to a census survey. Poverty rates for black children, though down since 1963, remain 2 times higher than for whites.
  • Homeownership: The rate for whites hovers above three-quarters; for blacks, less than half, census figures show.
  • Whites 65 or older receive 25 times as much income from retirement investments as elderly blacks, according to a 2008 report by the nonpartisan Urban Institute.

Is there any good news?

Sure: In the labor market, African-Americans as a group are moving out of service and unskilled jobs, comprise a growing percentage of the technology work force, and are moving into more management positions.

The proportion of blacks earning upper incomes has improved, too. As of July 2008, four of the Fortune 500 companies were headed by black chief executives. (Oprah Winfrey is the lone African-American on Forbes' list of 469 U.S. billionaires.)

These accomplishments are tempered by the fact that the U.S. population is 13 percent black. Still, "those are clearly heights to which you would not have seen African-Americans move at the time of the 'I Have a Dream' speech," says Margaret Simms, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

A fair amount of this progress is connected to higher educational attainment, which, in her opinion, is aided by school programs, desegregation and affirmative action in college enrollment. Carrie P. Meek, a retired congresswoman from Florida who successfully fought to reduce class sizes in urban elementary schools, agrees. Reaching black students early is the key and more needs to be done, she says, but "I think we have progressed."

More good news: Black Enterprise magazine's list of the top 100 black-owned companies reveals firms that are major suppliers to automakers, computer and construction companies, and others.

And yet, most black-owned enterprises still control a very small share of America's economic activity, says William Spriggs, chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University.

In 2002, black-owned firms did $88.6 billion in sales and employed 750,000 workers. Sounds impressive — until you consider that the U.S. economy did $22.6 trillion in sales and that 17.8 million blacks are in the labor force.

Black firms face two barriers, Spriggs says: "They still can't get access to real capital. ... Secondly, you need business-to-business sales to grow. And the amount of discrimination in the business-to-business market is very high."

Think of obscure "venture capital funds" and "private equity funds" as the modern-day Community Bank — a bank that's willing to take more risks on whites than blacks, says Betsy Zeidman, director of the Center for Emerging Domestic Markets and a research fellow at the Milken Institute. That's partly because few minorities control such funds and partly because "the African-American community has traditionally been involved in service-type businesses that are not necessarily going to attract equity capital."

This exacerbates what is, perhaps, the biggest hurdle to parity between whites and blacks in America — the "legacy gap," or wealth gap.

White households have more than 14 times the net wealth of black households — $88,651, compared to $5,988 — according to a 2004 study by the Pew Research Center.

The wealth gap, however, is visible in more than just disparities in savings, says Andrew Young, the former U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor who was one of King's principal lieutenants.

"Whites have not only inherited wealth from their ancestors for a longer period of time, they inherit an understanding of our financial system," says Young.

Even in arenas generally thought better integrated — in sports, media and the military, for example — few blacks are in control as franchise owners or top-level leaders. In the U.S. military, blacks are 17 percent of the total force but just 9 percent of all officers. (Only one of the 38 four-star generals serving as of May was black.)

Hollywood is "sensitive" to issues of race and the industry is moving in the right direction, says Louis Gossett Jr., an Oscar-winning actor who is black. However, "the people who still call the shots ... are of one race."

Film projects on racial themes with black leading actors get less financing and distribution, he says. "In fact, my best Caucasian friend often says, 'I'll handle this so we can all be equal.' Now, we should probably handle these things together."

Blacks' limited opportunity to build wealth for most of American history is part of the debate about issues such as affirmative action, says Bositis.

"Whites talk like, 'Well, the playing field is even now.' But the playing field in terms of legacy is not."

Our homes, our courthouses, our churches — these were places where King dreamed that Americans would "transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood."

No one should be satisfied, he declared, "as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one."

The Fair Housing Act, passed on April 11, 1968, just seven days after King's assassination, was intended to eliminate residential segregation. So, are we more residentially integrated 40 years later?

Segregation "is declining very slowly, and indeed increasing in some areas," according to an April report by the National Fair Housing Alliance, a consortium of more than 220 nonprofit organizations, state and local civil rights agencies.

Nationwide, residential segregation fell by 12 percent between 1980 and 2000 in metropolitan areas. Generally, a decrease was seen around smaller cities with populations that were less than 5 percent African-American, according to the census. Similarly, researchers from the Urban Institute, analyzing 69 of America's largest metro areas, discovered that the share of neighborhoods that were "exclusively white" fell from 65 percent in 1980 to 47 percent in 2000.

However, among neighborhoods that were "exclusively white" (less than 5 percent black) in 1990, 81 percent remained so in 2000, while 15 percent shifted to "predominantly white" (5-10 percent black), the institute said.

Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of the neighborhoods that were predominantly or exclusively black in 1990 remained that way a decade later, the institute reported. And residential segregation actually increased in eight of 220 metropolitan areas, according to the census bureau.

"As long as we live in racially and ethnically separated communities, we're never going to reach the dream," says Lisa Rice, vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

Mortgage discrimination, redlining, real-estate steering and credit scoring customs have helped keep blacks from getting things like homeowners' insurance, even as the Justice Department has been filing fewer housing discrimination charges, she says.

The Center For Responsible Lending, an advocacy group that fights predatory lending, reported in 2006 that "for most types of subprime home loans, African-American and Latino borrowers are at greater risk of receiving higher-rate loans than white borrowers," even after factoring in "legitimate" risks.

Within the criminal justice system, racial disparities are no less stark: The black-to-white incarceration ratio stands at 6-to-1; in some states, that ratio reaches as high as 14-to-1, according to an analysis of Justice Department figures by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit criminal justice policy group.

One of three black men, on average, will spend time in a federal or state prison at some time in their lives, compared to 1 of 20 whites, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

And there's a disparity when it comes to sentencing convicts to Death Row: Between 1995 and 2000, 48 percent of those sentenced to die were black — only 20 percent white, according to Justice Department data. (Hispanics accounted for 29 percent of capital punishment convictions.)

How much of this is tied to discrimination? Black poverty? Cultural differences? Harsher sentences for crack, more commonly sold by African-Americans, than for powder cocaine, more common among whites?

"It's tough to claim that there is no discrimination in the criminal justice system, but a 6-to-1 ratio is far too great a variation to be attributable only to discrimination," says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Some, such as Heather Mac Donald, a research fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a policy think tank in New York City, say that the high percentage of blacks behind bars overwhelmingly reflects a racial difference in crime rates, not bigotry.

Indeed, from 1976 to 2005, blacks accounted for more than half of all arrests for murder in America. In 2006, African-Americans constituted 39.3 percent of all violent-crime arrests.

The dropping crime rate of the '90s, "to which stricter sentencing policies unquestionably contributed, has freed thousands of law-abiding inner-city residents from the bondage of fear," Mac Donald recently wrote in City Journal, a conservative quarterly magazine on urban affairs.

But others insist the high incarceration rates partly reflect uneven enforcement. The war on drugs, says Ryan King of The Sentencing Project, has turned into a de facto war on minorities.

And what of a final racial gulf in the America of the 21st century — the one still existing in our houses of worship?

It's been remarked that, in churches across the nation, 11 o'clock on Sunday morning is America's most segregated hour. Rev. Lowery, when he puts retirement aside to preach in churches, still notices only "tokens" of the non-majority race in the congregation. His old friend, King, would be deeply saddened by this, he believes.

"I think Martin would be very proud of the progress we've made in some areas, like politics," he says.

And in the church?

"He'd be smiling through his tears."