I write this commentary on August 28, 2014 – fifty-one years after the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr made his famous speech, “I have a dream” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. It was not only a speech for its time, but a speech for all time.
Half a century later, Dr King’s reminder to the American people of “the fierce urgency of Now”, in ending discrimination, segregation and victimisation of black people, is still to find resonance and acceptance amongst institutional bodies in the US, particularly the justice system.
Clearly, Dr King’s profound and haunting peroration has to be repeated over and over again. And, the importance of his summons to the American society, especially its establishment not only in Washington but in every City and Town across the United States of America, has to be evoked continually in action to end judgements of black people on the basis of the colour of their skin.
Until this is done in a comprehensive and comprehensible manner, the idea that black people are the equals of white people and should be treated as such, will continue to evade America and will stop it from ever being a cohesive society and a strong and respected nation despite its economic and military pre-eminence in the world.
Abraham Lincoln, in the shadow of whose memorial, Dr King spoke 51 years ago, summed it up best even before he became President of the US and signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 freeing slaves in some selected states of America. Five years earlier he had declared: “No government can survive half-slave and half-free”.
But, the final abolition of slavery in the US in 1865 far from bringing an end to racism, ushered in a new period of segregation, discrimination and victimisation on the basis of colour, as it did in the English-speaking Caribbean where it had been formally abolished in 1834.
While, in the Caribbean, because black people are the majority of the population and because, with independence, they established control of the institutions of their governance, discrimination against them has long ended, it still abounds in the United States.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has now been law in the US for fifty-years, coming one year after Dr King appealed to the better instincts of the people of the United States. Despite the strong support of President John F Kennedy and his successor Lyndon B Johnson, the Senate debated the bill for sixty days, including seven Saturdays, before finally adopting it – so reluctant was the establishment, especially in the Southern states to end the treatment of blacks as non-citizens.
Today, race in the United States continues to be an unresolved issue, and Lincoln’s telling observation that “no nation can survive half-free and half-slave” is still to receive universal acceptance as a value and a norm. Witness the fatal shooting on August 9 of an unarmed, 18-year old black, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
The killing of Brown was followed by protests by the black community who have long regarded themselves as unfair targets of police discrimination.
This incident followed the fatal shooting two years before in February 2012 of a 17-year old black high school student, Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, supposedly a neighbourhood watch volunteer who operated more like a vigilante.
Martin’s death also occasioned rallies, marches and protests by black people who demanded justice. While both Brown and Martin’s deaths became high-profile cases, daily discrimination and abuse against blacks in the US are unreported and unremarked at a national level.
But, at the community level these incidents fester and contribute to mistrust and suspicion. Antagonism in America’s race relations is deep, tangible and intense.
Although 72% of the total population of the United States is white and only 13% is black, African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population.
According to research conducted by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. There would be many reasons for this including poverty, lack of educational opportunities, discrimination in the society and simple disenchantment.
Census figures from 2012 show that even though blacks are only 13% of the total US population, a disproportionate number of them live in deep poverty. Further, the gap in household income and household wealth between blacks and whites has widened in the last 50 years.
None of this denies the progress in race relations and racial attitudes that has occurred in the US, but it would be a gross error of misjudgement to misinterpret blacks in the US Presidency, in the Federal government and in the state systems as the achievement of those goals so passionately and inspiringly set forth by Dr King fifty-one years ago.
A black man securing the Presidency of the United States encountered immense hostility that continued into the Presidency with calumnies and contempt never before shown to a US President by elements of the media and members of the House of Representatives.
Speaking one hundred years after Lincoln’s Emancipation Declaration, Dr King reminded the American people: “One hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land”.
Dr King was speaking then for blacks in America, but he could just as well have been speaking for the people of developing countries around the world.
There have been changes in the US society, as there have been in the international society. But, the slow and grudging rate of those changes and the discrimination and injustice that continues today proclaim, in a stark manner, that the road to fulfilling Dr King’s “dream” remains long and the journey gruelling.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)