Fifty years after the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln and challenged the nation to confront racial inequality, the president of the United States stood in King's footsteps Wednesday and reaffirmed his call for a better life for all Americans.
The fact that President Barack Obama is an African-American is an indication of how far this nation has come since the March on Washington, when the Lincoln Memorial was the backdrop for King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech on Aug, 28, 1963.
Fifty years ago, African-Americans living in the Old Confederacy confronted a de facto system of apartheid that denied them basic human rights -- including equal opportunity in jobs, housing and education as well as the right to vote -- solely because of the color of their skin. During the summer of 1963, "Bull" Connor set snarling police dogs upon non-violent protesters and Medgar Evers was slain on his own doorstep while his wife and children watched. Less than a month after the March on Washington, children were murdered in a Birmingham church that was bombed by racists.
By any standard, we live in a different nation than the one Dr. King challenged "to make real the promises of democracy ... to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice."
"Separate but equal" schools are no more. Public accommodations are available to all. Race no longer is a legal barrier to housing, employment or marriage. And the president of the United States, the product of a marriage that would have be illegal in several states at the time of hisen birth, is a man of color.
Progress toward the society Dr. King envisioned -- one in which men and women would not be judged "by the color of the skin but by the content of their character" -- is undeniable. And yet, as Dr. King pointed out 50 years ago, much more remains before we are a nation of true equality.
President Obama acknowleged as much Wednesday in his remarks at the Lincoln Memorial, calling for a renewed commitment for improving the lives of all Americans, regardless of race or socio-economic factors. "We can continue down our current path, in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations; where politics is a zero-sum game where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie," he said. "Or we can have the courage to change."
Fifty years ago, Dr. King challenged the thousands at the Lincoln Memorial to "always march ahead," never to turn back in the face of oppression and challenges. He knew that the road ahead would be a long one, filled with challenges and tribulations; less than five years later, his own journey would end at the hands of an assassin.
The dream he evoked 50 years ago has been partially fulfilled. The days of Bull Connor and cities literally aflame because of racial unrest are gone, but challenges rooted in racial inequality remain. Too many African-Americans and other minorities remain at "the back of the bus" in terms of economics, education and employment. The right to vote continues to face legal tests. And racism, while perhaps less overt than in the days of George Wallace,continues to color the perceptions of many.
"The courage to change," never an easy task for some, must remain a guiding principle for those seeking to make Dr. King's 50-year-old dream a lasting reality.