At 3pm on August 28th 1963, 50 years ago a man stood near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and told the world his dream.
I wasn’t alive when Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) uttered his iconic words, but in 2010, 47 years later, I also stood at the same site of Lincoln Memorial as a tourist. There is so much history at National Mall, where the Lincoln Memorial lives, but it wasn’t easy to absorb it all in a single moment. There were so many other tourists bustling around like bees marking their territory for the best photo spot. I feel privileged to have stood at a site where one of the greatest speeches in history was heard by millions. Looking back I appreciate it more now than I did when I was there.
Half a century later, it’s no surprise that the ‘I have a dream’ speech has been resurrected and marches on Washington mirroring those 50 years ago took place over the weekend.
But is it a dream come true?
I think yes and no. The US and UK claim to be allies and despite not having a defined civil rights movement on the right side of the Atlantic, the black diaspora on both sides seem to live in a similar reality. However, the African-American comrades look like they are doing better, wealth wise. The Economist Magazine recently published an article, ‘Walking life’, containing some interesting US stats, some of which are below.
In June 1964, ten months after MLK shared his speech, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, probably inspired by the words travelled to Neshoba County of Philadelphia to register black people for voting. That inspiration was brutally distinguished when the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) with help from the local police, ambushed their car, shot them all at point-blank range and buried their bodies. Eleven days later Lyndon Johnson, (became the 36th President of the United States, after John F. Kennedy), signed into law The Civil Rights Act of 1964; fiercely opposed by congressmen from the southern states. It became illegal for companies to refuse to serve citizens, deny them access to facilities or segregate schools based on race.
“In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
Since the first migrants from the Caribbean and Africa entered the UK, race relations between them, indigenous British people and the police have been tense. It may not have been classed as part of a civil rights movement but, in 1959 the Notting Hill Carnival made its début in London. Set up by Trinidadians, spearheaded by the ‘Mother of Carnival’, Claudia Jones a Trinidadian journalist and political activist. The carnival was an attempt to improve race relations in the UK, especially London where the Notting Hill Race Riots lasted for one week between August and September 1958. National press reports documented that race tensions were high during the summer of 1958. Gangs of white men armed with wood blocks, iron bars and knives, declared that they were on a ‘nigger hunting expedition’. Five black men were badly beaten up. The following week on Friday 29th August 1958 it all exploded. Apparently it started with a domestic dispute between a Jamaican man and his Swedish wife. A gang of white men thought they would take it upon themselves to ‘protect’ the white woman. Fights broke out and the next evening around 200 white men armed with weapons were running through the streets shouting, ‘down with the niggers’ and ‘go home you black bastards’. This was also a time when, like in the US black people were refused entry to bars and pubs, as well as not allowed to rent certain properties. The 1980s was also a tumultuous decade, with race riots across the country including, the Brixton riots – London (1981, 1985) and Toxteth riots – Liverpool (1981).
“The marvellous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.”
Six years after the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence (1993), the Macpherson report declared the Metropolitan police to be institutionally racist, defined as, ‘…the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin’. Things may have calmed down a bit today in the UK, but racism and socioeconomic inequalities still exists; but let’s focus on the US for now.
Today the US has a black / bi-racial president (depending on how you want to look at it), interracial relationships between blacks and whites are increasing; it was illegal in many states when MLK was alive. Now, apparently 24% of black men marry outside of their own race.
In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed, also opposed by southern congressmen.
- During the most recent presidential election there were more black voters than any other racial group.
- It looks like race isn’t an issue among the majority of white voters, as Obama won more votes in 2008 than John Kerry in 2004.
“There will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
Rich, wealthy, neither
From what can be seen today, compared with the plight of blacks in the ‘50s and ‘60s, African-Americans are doing well! In 1940 60% of black women worked as housemaids, in 1959 55% of blacks lived in poverty and only around 5% between 25-29 years-old graduated from university. But despite all the rich black singers, rappers, dentists, surgeons, CEOs and movie stars (including Morgan Freeman – a black actor chosen to play the role of God in Hollywood movie Bruce Almighty); on the whole black progress isn’t that great compared with white Americans.
- Blacks have a lower life expectancy than whites
- Blacks have lower incomes than whites
- Between 2000 and 2011 blacks earned around $9,000 less than whites
- After the housing crisis, black families’ median wealth decreased by 53% and white families only 16%
- In 2011 median household wealth (cash, investments, cars, and various other assets) for white families was over $110,000; for black families it was just over $6,000
“One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
A house or a home
Statistics show that, in comparison black children tend to be poorer than white children. Receiving inferior education, black children are less likely to go to university and more likely to get stuck in low-waged ‘dead-end’ jobs. This can mean that, even if black people can get mortgages, they will be riskier with higher interest rates. The traditional black family seems to have evaporated; during the decade MLK made his speech 25% of black children were born out of wedlock:
- Today this figure has risen to 72% (a large proportion being raised by single mother households)
- Today this figure for white children is 29%
- In 2011 55% of black children were raised by a single parent
“We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.”
According to the Economist article, for Americans who:
- Complete education up until 18 years
- Work full-time
- Wait at least until they are 21 years-old before having children
There’s a less than 3% chance of them being poor (it didn’t specify the metrics used to define poverty). Apparently many African-Americans cannot tick all three criteria, so a cycle of poverty continues. Some people blame the disproportionately high number of black men in prison for the breakdown of black families (but there are probably many other complicated reasons). Apparently marijuana is used equally among black and white Americans, but black people are four times more like to be arrested for possession.
- Between the ages of 30-34, 1 out of every 10 black men is in prison (for any crime)
- Between the ages of 30-34, 1 out of every 61 white men is in prison (for any crime)
“This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
While the statistics look depressing, African-Americans have come very far since that day in 1963, the most obvious measure being Barak Obama; sometimes criticised for not doing enough for black people. Upon election of the US presidency, Obama became president of white Americans, Chinese Americans, Hispanic Americans…all Americans. He isn’t a black civil rights leader, so I don’t think he can show unfair bias towards ‘black issues’ only. He has to think about America as a whole. No doubt, there are certain laws that discriminate against African-Americans and/or make it harder for them to progress but black people can help themselves too, which they have done. Some the wealthiest black people in the world are African-American; but there are also high levels of black-on-black crime which continues to plague black America. There has been progress and opportunities for positive change, but it does seem that it may not come easy and the fight for justice and equality, which are given freely to others, churns on for blacks. So the dream hasn’t fully come true yet, but if we all wake up it might be realised sooner rather than later. Sweet dreams.
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation.”
“I have a dream 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.
I have a dream today.”
Quotes taken from MLK ‘I have a dream’ speech
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