Has Martin Luther King's dream come true?
When I helped draft that 1963 speech, none of us imagined an African American president. But US society is far from post-racial.
By Clarence Jones
In 1963, I had a contentious meeting with Robert Kennedy. In defending the civil rights achievements of his brother John and the Justice Department during his tenure as attorney general, RFK predicted that, "in 40 years", a negro might be president of the United States. Those of us who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr never contemplated the possibility of a black president in our lifetimes. Kennedy turned out to be off by only five years.
In 2008, I travelled to France as the guest of SOS Racisme and the mayor of Paris. My invitation was part of the city's celebration of the 60th anniversary of the UN's Declaration of Human Rights and commemoration of the legacy of Dr King, 40 years after his death. One question asked of me, again and again there, was: Does the election of Obama as president of the United States mean that Dr King's dream has been fulfilled?
This is posed as a yes-or-no question, and I find that troubling. Because the situation is one of degrees. The problems of prejudice exist on a continuum. A better question might be: have we even come close?
Much progress has indeed been made. As a participant in the civil rights movement, I'm proud of that progress. But as long as there is necessity for such a legal category as hate crime, the "Dream" remains unfulfilled. As long as DWB ("Driving While Black") in the presence of police remains a perilous activity for many African Americans throughout our nation, the Dream remains diluted. As long as unemployment among African Americans keeps repeating the historic ratio of double the rate of unemployment among white people, the Dream remains unfulfilled. As long as polarisation of wealth and absence of equal access to economic opportunity continue to escalate and disproportionately affect African Americans, the Dream remains unfulfilled.
These are not anomalies; they are realities in America. As such, the Dream that Martin Luther King Jr brought to us remains out of reach.
Those who argue that our election of an African American president proves that racism is a thing of the past are not looking closely at the subtleties of racism. Of course, Barack Obama is living proof that progress has been made towards respect for African Americans, but consider the hatred that bubbled up as he gained momentum in the primaries.
Even Obama's eventual running mate, Joe Biden, was scrutinised by the media over a possibly racist comment. Among the adjectives he used to describe his then opponent, Biden offered "African American" and then the word "clean". And while he kept backpedalling, saying he meant the phrase to invoke the idea there were no skeletons in Obama's closet, one cannot help but wonder. Would Biden or any other public servant ever describe someone like John Kerry as "white and clean?" It is doubtful.
The post-racial America it's been suggested we achieved by Obama's election is nowhere in sight. The truth may be that we don't want to admit to ourselves that an African American president does not mean a society wholly accepting of all African Americans. Indeed, racism continues to fester in every American city and town. We can safely, if sadly, say that we have not fully achieved the Dream.
Those who say otherwise simply have not taken the requisite look at the underlying political ideology that powered the philosophical engine of Martin Luther King Jr. The essence of his dream for African Americans after the March on Washington was this: a United States where every person has the equal opportunity – educationally, economically, culturally and politically – to participate in our society and develop themselves to the maximum of their abilities, irrespective of the colour of their skin or ethnicity. This concept assumes that, all other things being equal, African Americans should have access to the same opportunities as whites.
But this "all other things being equal" is the lie of race relations in America. Because our country has not levelled the playing field at all. Various civil rights bills, constitutional amendments and supreme court decisions aimed at dismantling segregation in education, transportation and rental housing, have not constituted "all other things being equal". Ours is a capitalist society, and each individual's market power is key to how he is treated. There remains an enormous division between the races when it comes to median income, home ownership, education, life expectancy, the incarceration rate, drug use and mortality rate.
The issue at the heart of all these problems is the idea that freedom and economic opportunity are interchangeable; that freedom is economic opportunity. This is false logic. Freedom without economic opportunity is just a variant form of oppression. Further, this thinking is dangerous because it obscures the definitive criterion necessary in evaluating the realisation of Martin's Dream for African Americans in the 21st century and beyond: wealth.
• This article is adapted from Clarence B Jones' new book, co-authored with Stuart Connelly, Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech That Transformed a Nation, published by Palgrave Macmillan