We marked the 50th anniversary last week of one of the greatest moments in American history: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.
If you haven’t taken the time to read the speech, or watch it on YouTube, you really owe it to yourself as an American to do so.
Like the words of the Declaration of Independence, which King quotes, or the Gettysburg Address, which he references, the “I have a dream” speech is one of the essential documents of the nation. The truth it contains is essential to the idea of America.
One of the lines that still strikes as relevant today is early in the speech, when King talks about the role white Americans have to play in the dream.
“The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people,” King said, “for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
Isn’t it true that if one of my fellow Americans is not free, than I am not truly free?
And if our destinies are inextricably bound together, then what are our prospects for the future?
Fifty years after King’s speech, the legal barriers that confronted African-Americans in 1963 — voting rights, segregated schools, fair housing — have fallen. Yet segregation in fact remains. In Chicago, some of the poorest and most segregated neighborhoods not only still exist, but have expanded.
Chicago’s public school system is plagued by school closings, high dropout rates, poverty and legal segregation. Some 87 percent of the students are poor, and 86 percent are black and Latino.
We should weep over that fact.
All through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, as blacks moved into white neighborhoods, whites moved out. An African-American co-worker once told me about his family’s experience moving into a “nice” white neighborhood. Within a few years, he said, all the white families moved. “Why did they do that?” he asked.
If we believe our destinies are inextricably bound together, we should weep over the answer to that question.
Crushing poverty is devastating to neighborhoods. A final statistic to ponder is the 70 percent of African-American children born to a single parent.
All those statistics combined add up to a life sentence of continued poverty. Despite all the progress we’ve made, and we have come such a long way, 50 years later, I think King would weep over the state of his dream.