Almost 50 years since MLK’s death, what has changed for African-American America?
On 4th April 1968 Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. King had been at the vanguard of the civil rights movement in the US during the 1950s and 1960s, and remains the most renowned and most influential figure in the history of black rights.
Now, 47 years after his death, how has his mission been upheld in his absence? How has life changed for those for whom he was a leader and spokesperson? And what would he have to say about it?
On 4th November 2008, Barack Obama became the first black US president. His arrival represented the product of over 150 years worth of struggle and protest for black equality in America. That night, the country was jubilant as it had never been before.
However, during the past few years of Obama’s presidency, the symptoms of systemic racial discrimination have appeared with an ugly and undeniable regularity. Cases of police brutality towards black people have inspired new protests and official investigations exposing the cancer that resides at the centre of the American corps.
In August 2014, unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. His killing sparked outrage amongst the black community in Ferguson, and led to riots and looting in the town.
In March 2015, a report carried out by the department of justice uncovered the extent of racism within the Ferguson police department (FPD).
It included illuminating statistics highlighting the racial bias existing within the FPD. Between 2012 and 2014, for example, 93 per cent of people arrested in Ferguson were African-American, despite comprising only two thirds of the overall population. The report also stated that “African-Americans accounted for 85 per cent of vehicle stops and 90 per cent of citations” and that they were “more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops”.
Unfortunately, many more statistics exist to support the claim of racial inequality in the US as a whole.
According to US thinktank the Center for American Progress: “Of black men born in 2001, one in three have a chance of being incarcerated during their lifetime,” compared to one in 17 for white men. Furthermore, as of 2014, the unemployment rate for black men aged 16 or over was 12.2 per cent, almost double that of the entire population. Weekly median income for black men was also lower than that of white and Asian Americans, it added.
However, the article also revealed the progress made in recent years by black men in areas such as education. An increasing percentage of black men between the ages of 18 and 24 now attend some form of higher education. Since 1976, the proportion of black men aged 25 or above who have earned at least a bachelor’s degree has increased three-fold from 6.3 per cent to 20.4 per cent. In that same time, the high school drop-out rates for black men has more than halved, falling from 21.2 per cent to 8.1 per cent.
So, it would seem incorrect to conclude that no advancements had been made towards racial equality in the US. President Obama, speaking recently in Selma, Alabama, refused to accept the very notion, saying: “To deny this progress – our progress – would be to rob us of our own agency; our responsibility to do what we can to make America better.”
He was forced to concede, however, that the US is far from a post-racial country:
“We just need to open our eyes, and ears, and hearts to know that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us. We know the march is not yet over, the race is not yet won, and that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character requires admitting as much.”
Here, Obama has adopted the words of Martin Luther King Jr, further confirming King’s legacy and position within the history of black civil rights.
However, what might King say about the current restrictions to civil rights in Obama’s America? Were he alive today, what action would he take in response to the systemic racism infecting the US?
Of course, one cannot offer any definitive answers to the question. One can only imagine that Dr King would applaud the efforts of peaceful protesters, for whom his own successes by non-violent means are a prime inspiration, and that he would reproach those whose anger and frustration have found their expression in rioting and vandalism.
If anything, he might recognise that a resurgent civil rights movement, above all else, requires faith; faith that the case for equal rights is not, and will never be, made in vain, and that a persevering spirit will ultimately triumph. As he said in Selma 50 years ago:
“I know you are asking today: ‘How long will it take?’ I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth pressed to earth will rise again.”
Whatever the case, one thing is clear: the words of Dr King are as valuable today as they ever were. Whether resonating from the pastors pulpit or the presidential podium, the truth they carried is still an inspiration for activists across the US who rightly believe that, although change has not been swift, it is inevitable.