Nation Gets Closer to King’s Dream

Thirty years ago, a quarter million Americans marched onto the mall at the Capitol in Washington D.C. They were demonstrating for equal rights for the class of Americans the constitution refers to as “other persons.” Gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, they heard a young Baptist preacher speak. In his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described a nation where men would not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character. On August 28, 1993, thousands returned to Washington to renew this dream.

Many people are asking what happen to the Dreamer’s dream? Clearly, America is more like Dr. King’s dream today than it was in 1963. In ’63, I was serving in the military, stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, in a Military Police Company. Our unit was alerted for possible riot control duty in Washington D.C. As company operations sergeant, it was my duty to prepare passenger manifests for aircraft assigned to transport MPs to Washington D.C. for riot control duty. I would not have gone with my unit on this assignment had they been called. But this was not my choice¼ the orders were to send only the white MPs.

Gone is the army commander who gave the orders to send only white soldiers to Washington in case the marchers rioted. Someone Dr. King dreamed about replaced him and the institutional structure that supported and guided his decision. And that makes America a better place today.

In 1963, Jim Crow segregation remained the law of the land. Dr. King dreamed about little children playing together while cities closed parks and filled swimming pools with dirt, and our governor stood blocking the school house door. Today little black children and little white children play together. They attend school together, building enduring relationships across centuries-old racial barriers. Much of Dr. King’s dream thirty years ago is our nation’s reality today.

In 1963, few non-white Americans held elected office. An array of barriers stood between them and the voting booth. Today, they hold an impressive list of elective offices. At every level of government (city, state and Federal), and each branch (legislative, executive and judicial), you will find nonwhite elected officeholders. You find them in state legislatures, both as senators and representatives, and they serve in both Federal legislative bodies. Many are elected mayor of some of America’s largest cities. One is the elected governor of the state of Virginia. Nonwhite judges serve at every level of the judicial system, from city courts to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Truly, we’ve realized much of Martin Luther Kings Jr.’s dream of thirty years ago. Yet, there remains much to be done, because we needed so much done. Remaining unchanged is an economic structure, supported by old racist programs and policies, that yield an unemployment rate among nonwhite workers two times that of white workers. This residue of racism remaining in our society affects almost every aspect of our life from birth to death. Nonwhite infant mortality is twice that of white infants. The teenage homicide rate for nonwhite males is several times that of white males. The disproportionately high number of nonwhite males under supervision of the criminal justice system is inexplicable for reasons other than structural racism. And in the final years of life, nonwhite Americans can expect to live fewer years than white Americans.

We can eliminate structural racism in America. We can do this by making our businesses and institutions look like the people they serve. There is no legitimate reason for a business or institution not representing its customers. This means that companies marketing goods and services to poor people should employ poor people. If government is policing women, hire some women for the police department. If your company sells goods and services to nonwhite Americans, then it’s a legitimate expectation to see some among the ranks of your employees. We must make America look like America. This is something that we can and must do.

President Clinton promised during the campaign that he would make his administration look like America. Frankly, recent images from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, the island where he spent his summer vacation, looked much more like America than I expected. The photo-opportunities with Vernon Jordan demonstrated to voters that the president of the United States could spend quality time with a nonwhite person. Unlike either of his predecessors, Mr. Reagan or Mr. Bush, this president is not afraid to be seen spending quality time with a nonwhite person. I think that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would have enjoyed seeing the President sitting in a golf cart with Vernon Jordan on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in 1993.

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Originally Published: 1 September 1993, Montgomery Advertiser

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