Restarting our national conversation on race
Reflections on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the pulpit at the Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tenn. It was the day before an assassin’s bullet would rip into his neck and rob us of one of the most eloquent and effective civil and human rights activists the world has ever known.
“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness,” King sermonized in support of striking sanitation workers. “Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days … to make America what it ought to be.”
King that day challenged the nation to aspire to its own ideals of unity, freedom and equality. With an urgent, peaceful tone, he acknowledged the tough journey ahead. With eerie prescience — he’d die in a city hospital the next day — Dr. King closed on an optimistic note.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life … I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain … and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we … will get to the Promised Land.”
American schoolchildren likely commemorated King’s assassination with moments of silence or special readings. News programs ran moving footage of King’s speeches. But if we wish to honor Dr. King, let’s restart the too-often interrupted conversation about race, discrimination, segregation and its twisted, brutal legacies.
Then, in our places of worship, our community centers, our school board meetings, our college campuses, our state capitols and workplaces, we must craft solutions that acknowledge that lingering harm and bring us to a better future. We must talk and act in the manner King modeled — with open hearts, open minds, with recognition of our common humanity and with the capacity for empathy and forgiveness.
In 1968, we lost Dr. King and lost sight of the path he pointed us toward. Two months after King’s murder, the assassination of Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy closed the door on an historic period during which blacks made unprecedented gains in achieving legal parity with whites.
Civil rights advances have always come in this frustrating mode of starts and stops. Bursts of progress followed retrenchment. Dr. King delivered his 1968 address more than a century after President Abraham Lincoln tried to unite a country so bitterly divided by slavery that it had nearly collapsed. Like Dr. King, Lincoln, too, was assassinated before he could succeed.
Not until the period from the mid-1950s through the 1960s would we witness significant progress. Today, Americans celebrate civil rights heroes of this time with an uncommon unanimity. During this era, President Lyndon Johnson — the Texan who succeeded another assassinated leader, John F. Kennedy — championed reforms to make black Americans equal under law. This progress, too, was stopped short. Indeed, Johnson’s support for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Public Accommodations Act, cost the Democrats support from the South in future elections.
So here we are in 2008. The nation continues to grow more and more diverse as Latinos and Asians emerge as the fastest-growing minority groups. Diversity may be increasing generally, but black and Latino children are increasingly segregated in schools. The achievement gap is not shrinking. We must contend, too, with an “opportunity gap” in which disproportionate shares of black and Latino children live in neighborhoods that are not safe, and do not have adequate recreational facilities, grocery stores or schools that lead to wider opportunity. Our state and federal budgets suggest we possess more will to incarcerate than educate, especially in our neighborhoods of color.
If he were alive today, Dr. King might return us to his speech in Memphis and prescribe a painfully honest comparison between what we preach — equal chances, one nation indivisible — and what we practice — increasing inequality, entrenched segregation and unequal opportunity. The first step toward healing, he might say, is to illuminate the role that unconscious bias and vestiges of discrimination play in worsening the disease of inequality.
What are the symptoms? Vast numbers of people living, learning and working in the United States who are cut off from full participation in our nation’s economic, social and political life. What is the cure? Marshal our intelligence, compassion and technology to craft policies, programs and practices that connect people, families and children of color who are segregated, not so consequentially from white people, but from opportunity. In so doing, we may finally learn a simple lesson King aspired to teach: there is no “they” and there is no “us.”
Barack Obama’s address last month opened a new path. Like Dr. King, he asked each of us to pry our hearts open and summon a little more courage. In 40 years, will historians assess Obama’s speech as an eloquent anomaly? Or will they see it as something grander — as a moment that triggered a process that the nation had the strength to continue?
Before answering, move the spotlight from the presidential campaign to yourself. A leader can model good behavior. Better, fairer laws and policies can lay the foundation for a better, fairer society. But you cannot legislate personal transformation. It is each of us, our friends, our neighbors and allies we have yet to meet, who will determine whether or not we reach that Promised Land that Dr. King saw in his American dream.
Charles J. Ogletree Jr. is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law, and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, at Harvard Law School.