From King’s dream to Obama’s mission

Charles J. Ogletree Jr. | 1/15/2009, 2:11 a.m.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his “I Have a...
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., on Aug. 28, 1963. The march was organized to support proposed civil rights legislation and end segregation. Jan. 15, 2009, would have been King’s 80th birthday. AP

And yet, little attention is given to the stern words that began that speech, where he talked about the problems of segregation, police brutality and poverty in America, and insisted we respond to the “urgency of now.” Although he called very explicitly for a calm and peaceful reaction to the discriminatory policies that African Americans had suffered for years, he made clear that African Americans were not going to sit back any longer and tolerate further discrimination and abuse.

But, of course, the facts tell us that the story of the fight against racial discrimination is far from complete. Despite the wishful thinking of our political punditry, the United States has not yet attained a state of post-racial nirvana.

Our neighborhoods and schools remain stubbornly segregated and unequal. The gap between the opportunities afforded to white children and those provided to children of color in so many of our communities is vast. The average white family continues to benefit from education and income levels significantly higher than the average black or brown family. Incarceration rates of black men are so astronomical that, in the words of sociologist Bruce Western, they threaten to eliminate many of the “gains to African American citizenship hard won by the civil rights movement.” Individuals of color die, on average, several years younger than whites. They also suffer disproportionately from asthma, heart disease and a host of other medical conditions, and often receive inadequate and substandard health care treatment.

It is clear that, if the “promised land” is now within our sights, we still have a long, upward slog ahead in order to arrive there.

And yet, we should not underestimate the enormity of this historic moment, or the magnificence of what the American people accomplished during the presidential campaign of 2008. As a candidate, Obama cobbled together an impressive majority of voters — black, brown and white; rural, urban and suburban; male and female; young and old — who crossed all socioeconomic lines. He was not just a favorite in the “blue” Coastal states. He triumphed in Southern and Midwestern states like North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana, Florida and Ohio. Forty — or even five — years ago, few, if any, would have predicted that these states might provide the margin of victory to a black man running for president.

Whites voted for Obama in record numbers. In the process, many had to confront, and ultimately reject, their own lingering racial prejudices and fears. The much-ballyhooed “Bradley effect” never materialized in the privacy of the voting booth; nor did the violence that so many feared would erupt on the campaign trail.