Martin Luther King’s Dream: A Dream Come True? Or, a Dream Deferred?

The birthday of the foremost civil rights activist in the United States – Martin Luther King – will be honored with a federal holiday this year on January 17.

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has become one of the greatest in American history.

“I have a dream,” he said in that inspirational 1963 speech, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This year – 43 years after the assassination of that great American hero – we must reflect on whether or not the dream Martin Luther King lived and died for has come true, or whether it has been deferred for the estimated 41.8 million black residents living in the United States.

On the plus side:  The United States now celebrates its first African-American president.  More blacks are getting higher educations.  According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 2.5 million black college students in the fall of 2008.  This was roughly double the corresponding number from 25 years earlier.

The number of black-owned businesses totaled 1.9 million in 2007, up 60.5 percent from 2002.  And, according to the Census Bureau, receipts for black-owned businesses in 2007 were $137.4 billion, up 55.1 percent from 2002.

But poverty rates for blacks, according to the Census Bureau, stood at 25.8 percent in 2009.

“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

African-Americans have, undeniably, made progress in achieving true equality in mainstream American society.  But what do you think?  Has the dream of Martin Luther King been realized, deferred, or is it simply a work in progress?

Dr. King’s Dream – Still Alive in the DRC

Gabrielle M.M. Brock is a French-language translator, web editor and podcast producer for the State Department. Outside of the United States, she has lived in Jamaica, South Korea, Cape Verde, France and Mexico.

The year 1988 will always remain particularly vivid in my memory, as this was the year that I first came to live in the United States. I am not an immigrant; in fact, both of my parents are American citizens. But because my father is a career diplomat, I spent most of my childhood overseas. So when, at the age of 11, I came to live in Washington, I was eager to learn everything I could about my own country — its landscapes, its culture, its history.

Sadly, one of the major milestones of 1988 was the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. I knew who he was, of course — what he did for our country and how important his life’s work was. However, I didn’t know much about his death. Seeing his assassination re-examined on television and in the newspapers, it came as a shock to me, as it would to most children, to learn that sometimes even the greatest human beings — the ones who fight for all the right causes, the ones who truly change the world — are the ones who are brutally, senselessly murdered. As angry and sad as it made me, I also remember feeling grateful that, unlike my parents, people of my generation didn’t have to fear the kind of violence and instability that marked the 1960s in the United States.

Chargé d’Affaires Samuel Brock (center) and the Chebeya Family

Chargé d’Affaires Samuel Brock (center) and the Chebeya Family

Recently I received an e-mail from my father that made me feel angry — and fortunate — all over again. Still a U.S. diplomat, my father is currently stationed in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he’s currently the embassy’s Chargé d’Affaires. On July 16, he met with the widow and six children of Floribert Chebeya, a Congolese human rights activist who was found dead June 2.

I had read about Chebeya’s work, life and death this last month, but until today, I didn’t realize that, like MLK, Chebeya left behind a large and loving family. My father gave them several gifts on behalf of the American government, including books on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. He told them, “Martin Luther King had a dream that all people would be equal. Floribert Chebeya had a dream that the Congolese people would live in a country that respects human rights.”

My father has always tried to center his work as a diplomat on the advancement of human rights, perhaps because he grew up at a time when activists and civic leaders — people like Floribert Chebeya — risked their lives fighting for civil and human rights. Reading about the dinner he shared with the Chebeya family was, for me, a strong reminder that Americans of my generation owe much to fathers like Martin Luther King, Floribert Chebeya, and my own, Samuel Brock.

Samuel Brock holding Gabrielle as an infant

Samuel Brock holding Gabrielle as an infant

Enabling the Disabled

A bus driver pulls a man in a wheelchair up an access ramp.

A bus driver pulls a man in a wheelchair up an access ramp.

Imagine for a moment that you couldn’t walk. If you had to use a wheelchair to get around, could you get on and off a bus? If the entrance to a store, office or other public building were slightly elevated, could you get to the door and open it by yourself, and would the doorway be wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair?

Imagine for a moment that you were deaf. Could you make an appointment with a doctor, communicate your symptoms, and understand instructions from the medical staff during that appointment? Could you register for and understand a training session or a class at a university? Could you follow a news program on TV or watch a video?

Imagine for a moment that you were blind. Could you get to and from a store on your own and find what you want? Could you order a meal at an unfamiliar restaurant? Could you get to and from a polling station during an election and cast a vote?

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which turns 20 this month, transportation, public facilities and many services in the United States are more accessible to all. Thanks to ADA, for example, many city buses and trains have lifts or ramps for wheelchairs, priority seating signs, handrails, slip-resistant flooring, and information stamped in Braille. Emergency call centers are equipped with telecommunications devices for the deaf (TDDs), and federally funded public service announcements have closed captioning. Most importantly, ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in job recruitment, hiring, promotions, training or pay.

ADA’s provisions have helped enable many people to live independently, despite any physical or mental disability, and have helped protect their rights. Are there similar laws where you live?

Spelling Out Slavery

list of spelling words (Peggy B. Hu / State Dept.)Every week my son receives a list of words to practice spelling. This week one of the words was “slave.”

“What’s a slave?” he asked me.

“A slave is … a person who is owned by someone else,” I told him, caught off guard by the question. “A slave is someone’s property. It’s very bad; it’s wrong.”

“A slave works without being paid, and can’t go out or do anything else without permission,” I continued.

My son asked nothing more, and moved on to the next word in the spelling list. But I continued puzzling over how to explain the concept of slavery to him. To my multiracial child of privilege, working without pay means putting his dirty dishes in the sink after every meal and cleaning up his room periodically. And for my 7-year-old, pretty much every action requires someone’s permission first. How can I explain to him that being a slave is so much more abhorrent?

At this point in his life, my son is still innocent.  Although he has learned about the civil rights movement in school and we have regular talks about historical events and moral behavior, he has never experienced racism firsthand. I am not sure he even understands the concept of race; when asked to identify Martin Luther King’s race in a social studies test, for example, my son marked “Native American.” How, then, can he understand the idea of slavery and the role skin color still sometimes plays in society?

As my co-worker Steve has written, slavery is a part of U.S. history, and it continues to affect people even to this day. I believe it is important for my son to know about this history to understand race relations today. Slavery also still exists in parts of the world, along with related issues such as human trafficking, abusive child labor and gender-based violence. Although my instinct as a mother is to shield him as much as possible, I know he needs to learn that such injustices exist in the world. And maybe one day he will help work to prevent them.