Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Dream of racial equality still a long way from reality

Reformer: Martin Luther King Jr
Reformer: Martin Luther King Jr

Fifty years ago this month, Martin Luther King Jr stood before a sea of 250,000 people in front of Washington's Lincoln Memorial to deliver his "I have a dream" speech about racial equality in the United States.

Five decades on, while an African-American sits in the White House and significant gains have been made towards eradicating discrimination, racial tensions and disparities remain very much alive.

According to 2010 census figures, some 35% of blacks lived in poverty – $11,500 (£7,400) yearly for individuals, or $23,500 (£15,100) for a family of four – as opposed to 13% of whites.

Forms of racial segregation also appear to be alive and well. According to a poll released last week, 40% of white Americans, and 25% of non-whites have friends exclusively of their own race. But there are positives. For example, in 1965 just 31% of eligible black voters were registered to vote. Today, 73% are signed up. Today there are more than 10,500 black officials in the US – a vast improvement on the 500 in 1965.

Martin Luther King Jr's name is forever tied to the fight for racial equality. But, as the 1960s progressed, he became increasingly critical of the American economic system that produced such staggering wealth inequality.

In a 1967 speech he said: "True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth."

He created the Poor People's Campaign to battle income inequality. But his assassination in April 1968 cut short the effort before it gained any real traction.

King was also increasingly critical of America's military actions, declaring: "A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defence than on programmes of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom."

And that spending has only grown. In 1963, adjusted for 2013 dollars, the US spent $362bn (£233bn) on defence – a figure far below 2013's $634bn (£408bn) Pentagon budget.

But how would King have viewed 2013 America? In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, would he have acquiesced to "targeted" drone warfare, or the expansive surveillance of the National Security Agency? How about prisoners held for more than a decade without trial at Guantanamo Bay?

Some of MLK's likely reactions seem obvious. He'd have been appalled by the Supreme Court's June decision to repeal key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that required states with histories of discriminatory voting laws to attain federal authorisation before changing local voting laws.

Since then, several states, mostly in the south, have passed laws that will make it harder to register to vote, with minorities facing the highest new de facto hurdles.

As the 50th anniversary of his famed "I Have a Dream" speech nears, it's impossible to know how MLK would have reacted to modern America's economic, racial and social challenges. But, in spite of progress in many areas, it's safe to say the full realisation of his dream remains a long way off.

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