On a hot summer day almost 43 years ago, tens of thousands of Americans—black and white—marched for change. They marched to fulfill the dream that began 100 years before when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. They marched to end injustice and oppression. They stood side-by-side in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear that the dream had not been fulfilled. Martin Luther King, Jr., told them “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination . . . the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land . . . America had given the Negro people a bad check; a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.”
Hot and tired. Those who marched could have become despondent, but King also moved the crowd to hope. He challenged them to see the dream fulfilled. King wanted to cash the check that would open up “the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” He wanted all Americans to benefit from the promissory note of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. King boldly proclaimed “I have a dream.”
As I help college students to explore the dream, it is essential to share that our nation has come a long way. Through the sacrifice of average Americans, the civil rights movement led to important changes such as desegregation, equal protection under the law and voters rights. Where their blood fell, hope sprouted and grew. Attitudes and laws changed. Our nation stepped towards fulfilling the dream.
But there is still much to do. Hurricane Katrina showed Americans the good and the bad of our society. We saw the courage of first responders trying to save lives. But we also saw pictures of pets being transported on luxury buses as thousands of poor African-Americans waded through contaminated water. We saw the generosity of average Americans as aid poured into the area. But we also saw that the majority of victims in New Orleans were African-Americans. These people were poor and seemed to be forgotten.
The tragedy of Katrina was not simply the physical devastation, but the realization that still everyone is not equal. The roots of Katrina are found in Colonial America. Tobacco required much labor, and early colonists needed a long-term, stable labor force. They turned to African slaves, seen as sub-human with an uncivilized nature, inferior intellect and dark complexion. Race became a major force in America. Slavery became indispensable and over 500,000 black Africans were transported to North America. Slaves were kidnapped, sold like livestock and forced to perform backbreaking work. Families were severed as husbands and wives were separated and young children were sold and sent away from their parents to distant places. Slaves were forced to endure beatings, rapes, castrations, maiming and murder. There was no legal recourse because slaves were not human beings; they were private property.
Many assume the Civil War ended this pain and suffering, but the slave system was simply replaced with other forms of oppression revolving around segregation. The subjugation of African-Americans continued for another 100 years. The civil rights movement brought additional gains, but did not eliminate an underlying belief that the darker one’s skin, the more inferior that person is. Race remains at the foundation of discrimination and injustice. The road to equality is rocky, but all Americans need to continue the journey. As King encouraged us to do, we must look at our society and acknowledge the ills that still exist. We need to open our eyes to see that there are no subspecies of human beings. Despite surface differences, there is more variation within groups than between groups, which means two African-Americans may be as genetically different as an African-American and a European-American. Skin color really is only skin deep. With courage and stamina, we can eliminate racism.
We celebrate the life of King and his dream. In a few days, hundreds of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, European-Americans and Mexican-Americans will take to the streets. We will march to fulfill the dream. “We Shall Overcome” will ring from our lips. We will walk side-by-side to show that we realize our destiny is tied up with the destiny of all Americans. We will march because we still have a dream that one day all Americans will be equal and then we will shout “Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”
Scott Key is a professor in the foundations, curriculum and teaching program at Fresno Pacific University’s School of Education. Among the classes he teaches is American Race and Ethnicity.