Inside Story

Is the US still divided by race?

Fifty years after Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, we ask if his vision of equality has been realised.

Last Modified: 29 Aug 2013 09:39
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It has been 50 years since Martin Luther King Junior delivered his historic "I have a dream" speech. They were four words that changed the course of US history, but today questions remain about whether his vision has been realised.

It was August 28, 1963, and a quarter of a million Americans had marched to the Lincoln memorial in Washington DC to demand civil rights, jobs and freedom.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Junior was among the leaders of the so-called Big Six civil rights organisations. And his 17-minute-long, partially improvised address, struck a chord. It is now regarded as one of the most influential speeches of the 20th century.

King declared that he had a dream of racial tolerance, where people would not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. He said: "I have a dream 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."

... it is important that we recognise the profound nature of our history; those are words that changed the world .... To this day people say in freedom struggles 'I have a dream' ... so that sort of spirit still lives .... I think it is important … that we ... respect the history that was made on that day; while also keeping an eye towards realising that dream ....

 Avis Jones-DeWeever, the host of the radio show Focus Point

The speech and march helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later.

But what is the perception of equality in the US now?

A study published by the Pew Research Centre just last week found that 49 percent of Americans feel "a lot more" needs to be done to achieve racial equality. That number climbed to 79 percent among African-Americans.

Around three quarters of the black and white people questioned say the two races get on "very well" or "pretty well". But only one-in-four African-Americans say the situation for black people is better now than it was five years ago.

Speaking at a rally to mark the anniversary of his father's speech, Martin Luther King III said the struggle was far from over.

Martin Luther King Junior was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. At 25, he became pastor of a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama, which is where a black woman was famously arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. King came to prominence by organising a boycott of buses by African-Americans in the town.

He went on to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, and delivered his 'Dream’ speech, as the group's president in 1963.

King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, for his efforts to combat racial inequality. Four years later he was shot dead in Memphis at the age of 39. But his achievements were further recognised after his death, when he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

But has his dream of a US no longer divided by race been realised? And what will it take for that dream to be fulfilled?

To discuss this, Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: Avis Jones-DeWeever, an author, social commentator and host of the radio show Focus Point, which examines issues of race, gender and politics; and Rosa Clemente, a community organiser and hip hop activist, who stood as vice presidential candidate for the Green Party in 2008.

"It's definitely not a dream fulfilled .... But [it] is ... always important to commemorate what was the culmination of almost 100 years of struggle ... if Dr King was alive right now, he wouldn't be even invited to commemorate his own words .... "

"This was a march on justice and freedom, this was not only about racial equality but it was also about economic justice. In the latter part of his life, Dr King talked about America being … in a perpetual war, and we have been in perpetual war, and I think the idea that at this moment our president along with his cabinet is preparing a strike on another country to perpetuate another war, [and] today they are [also] honouring what Dr King and that whole movement was about, to me seems hypocritical."

Rosa Clemente, a community organiser


Al Jazeera
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