Sixty years after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, racial justice advocates say that dream has not been achieved. As Black Americans continue to face economic, social and systemic racism, those advocates point to social and policy changes that could push the country closer to King’s vision.
To start, political organizer DaMareo Cooper told The Hill it’s important to acknowledge that King’s dream has been misconstrued.
“It’s been perverted in our society to just talk about how [King] was the greatest peaceful demonstrator, and all that stuff is true, but we don’t want to talk about radical King,” said Cooper, co-executive director of the multiracial organizing network The Center for Popular Democracy.
“We pretend that the dream was just that Black and white folks can hang out together or go to school together or that society allows interracial marriages and stuff like that,” he continued. “But what he was really talking about is how do we create a society where everyone has economic opportunity … about being able to not only sit at the counter but to be able to pay for the food.”
For King’s dream to come to life, Cooper said, certain issues need to be addressed — with injustices in the criminal justice system being among the most pressing.
Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at more than five times the rate of white Americans in the United States, according to the Sentencing Project. Additionally, Black men consistently receive harsher prison sentences than white men who commit the same crimes, according to a 2022 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
The result of the disparities directly affects families’ financial stability. Mass incarceration has increased the U.S. poverty rate by an estimated 20 percent. In addition, the probability of a family being poor is 40 percent greater if the father is incarcerated. For Black Americans, once they are released from incarceration, they are less likely than white Americans to see their earnings recover, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Supporting communities, whether it be financially investing in predominantly Black public schools or improving health outcomes and access to health care, is the first step toward change, agreed Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“Dr. King did not die because he was part of a movement that won the crucial victories of citywide desegregation, the desegregation of public schools, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act,” Barber said in a statement to The Hill.
“No, he died because he insisted that those victories were not enough. Dr. King was murdered because he refused to accept a military industrial complex that destroyed lives half a world away, an economic system that was willing to throw away millions of poor and low wage people right here at home, and the continuing public policy racism that he called triune evils.”
Barber said in order for King’s vision to be reached, ideological differences must be put aside.
“So much of the problem in our public life isn’t about which side is right in any given debate, but the fact that we’re not even talking about the things that matter to the people who are hurting the most,” said Barber. That includes topics like health care, voting rights and the continued effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
But another important part to achieving King’s dream is dismantling three big myths about race, said Ben Jealous, former national president and CEO of NAACP.
The first myth is that racism only hurts Black people and people of color.
“If you accept that racism is used to divide people, then it follows that it hurts everybody trapped in poverty because if they can’t unite, they can’t change their position,” said Jealous, author of “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free: A Parable of American Healing.”
“There’s almost twice as many whites trapped in poverty than Blacks,” he added. “Ergo, it hurts numerically even more whites than Blacks in the biggest way, which is to impoverish people for generations.”
The second big lie, he said, is that only white people have paid for discrimination. In truth, Jealous said, Black Americans lost thousands of businesses and homes when segregation ended.
The last lie, Jealous said, is that division between races has always existed in America.
“The notion of race that we grew up with, as a color caste and a vestige of an old colonial order, was created in the early 1700s,” Jealous explained. “The Virginia Colony was started in the early 1600s. The American Experiment had been going for 100 years before we switched from a very old definition of race, which basically meant tribe, and applied it to this color caste system.”
As Jealous explores in his book, when European indentured servants and African slaves were rebelling together, race became a way to divide the servants and enslaved people.
Still, Jealous acknowledges these truths might be hard for some to accept, particularly as challenges are underway in state legislatures across the nation about what can be taught in schools.
“This is American history and we all need to know our history,” said Jealous. “It is important to the sons and daughters of confederates to understand the full history of their ancestors. It’s important to the sons and daughters of slaves to know the full history of our ancestors. And it’s especially important that we understand that our ancestors understood they were part of the same family. It affirms Dr. King’s assertion that we are all one American family.”
Barber added that in order to truly honor the Kingian tradition this weekend, the goal should not be to find ways to pat oneself on the back.
“Instead, as King said, we must [be] dissatisfied until justice rolls down like water and we are one nation under God indivisible with Liberty and justice for all.”