Today, on the holiday that celebrates civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., the nation’s first African-American president takes the oath of office for his second term. The symbolism of the moment is sweet, but a little too comforting for a nation that has a long way to go before it realizes Mr. King’s dream of a just and equitable society.
On the 27th observance of the federal holiday, it has become too easy to sanitize what Mr. King represented in his own time — and what he would have stood for today. Almost certainly, he would make people as uneasy today as he did when he opposed the Vietnam war or led striking sanitation workers in Memphis, just before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
Much in America has changed for the better, but much remains the same, or has gotten even worse. America now has an African American in the Oval Office, but it also has nearly a million black men in its prisons and jails.
Jim Crow laws are erased, but not segregation. Classrooms are practically as separate and unequal today as they were in 1968. Nearly 40 percent of black children live in poverty; one in 14 of them has an incarcerated parent.
Mr. King likely would have lamented much about America today. There’s little doubt that the growing gap between the haves and haves-not, the absolute failure to educate all children, the crisis of America’s central cities, and the rising tide of mass incarceration would top his 21st Century human rights agenda. Those issues would have taken Mr. King inexorably to Detroit, and even to Toledo.
Once branded the most dangerous man in America, Mr. King was more than a dreamer.
The holiday that honors him today should not only celebrate past victories, but also renew the nation’s commitment to making a just and equitable society more than a dream.