Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream not yet reality; continue the stuggle!
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C. at which Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As a family medicine researcher interested in understanding, explaining, and fighting against racial health inequalities, I also think it’s important to note that Martin Luther King also noted the injustice of racial health inequities. In a speech in 1966, King said that “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Racial health inequities are a special instance of social inequities and social injustice in general.
In commemorating the historic 1963 March on Washington and the movement that it was a part of, we need to be mindful of the fact that much work is left to be done to achieve the goals of the civil rights movement.
Yes, de jure racial segregation was defeated; however, de facto racial segregation continues to this very day. The conditions of life for the Black community improved some in the wake of the civil rights movement led by Dr. King. However, we still have a long way to go, as our communities remain plagued by segregated, low-quality schools, racially segregated neighborhoods, devastating unemployment, and poor housing. Below, for example, is a map depicting racial segregation in U.S. schools today. Municipalities throughout the U.S. enforced racial segregation in the schools since the founding of public education systems. Their constitutional right to do so was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). However, in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), the Supreme Court overruled Plessy and forbad state and local governments from practicing racial segregation. Despite this legal change, some public schools today are more racially segregated today than when Brown was decided in 1954. School segregation even increased in the 1990s. (Jeffrey Rosen, “The Lost Promise of School Integration”, New York Times, April 2, 2000, A1, 5.) As the 2000 map of school segregation below illustrates, black/white segregation is highest in counties with high black populations. (Compare with the 2000 census map of the distribution of blacks in the United States.)
Why has the law failed to undo the segregation that was originally caused by the law? The most obvious reason is that racial segregation of neighborhoods remains the norm in the U.S., as demonstrated in the city maps on this site. To the extent students attend neighborhood schools, they are likely to have few classmates of other races. But the courts, too, have played a role–initially by acquiescing in state resistance to desegregation, more recently by attacking the tools states use to achieve integration.
A couple of months prior to the August 28th March on Washington, King spoke at a massive rally of hundreds of thousands in Detroit. I did not attend that demonstration; however, as a young junior high school student in Detroit, the march had a huge impact on me nevertheless. King’s speech in that Detroit rally ring as true now as they did then:
“And so we must say, now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to transform this pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of racial justice. Now is the time to get rid of segregation and discrimination. Now is the time.
“And so this social revolution taking place can be summarized in three little words. They are not big words. One does not need an extensive vocabulary to understand them. They are the words ‘all,’ ‘here,’ and ‘now.’ We want all our rights, we want them here, and we want them now.”