Bob Ray Sanders: Struggle for equal

Bob Ray Sanders

Fifty years ago, on a hot Wednesday afternoon in the nation’s capital, Martin Luther King Jr. stood in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln and told America about a dream he had.

There is no way he could have imagined then that an African-American boy, who was only 2 years old at the time, would grow up to be president of the United States. And that on another Wednesday afternoon, exactly 50 years later, that black president would stand on the same steps of the Lincoln Memorial to deliver a speech in commemoration of the event officially known as the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”

President Barack Obama’s election is an example of King’s dream being partly realized. But in many ways, the president’s very existence — and some of the vile reaction to him because of his race — is evidence that America is as divided as it was in 1963, and that many people in this country are still judging others based on skin color.

We can argue about how much America has changed or not changed over the last five decades, but when you consider the demands the marchers made that Aug. 28, and parts of King’s speech besides the “I have a dream” segments, it is clear that some problems identified then are still with us.

Let’s consider the times. The summer of 1963 was hot in more ways than the temperature, and it would prove to be a turbulent, tragic and yet triumphant summer for the civil rights movement.

In April of that year, King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., where he would pen his now famous, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

In May, the whole world watched as Birmingham police official Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered attacks on peaceful demonstrators, many of them children, with dogs and fire hoses, arresting more than 500 youngsters.

Tensions ran higher in June as Alabama Gov. George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to keep two black students from enrolling, forcing President Kennedy to federalize troops to ensure the students’ admittance and safety.

During that crisis Kennedy addressed the nation in a prime-time television appearance and called for the passage of a civil rights bill, bringing hope to a tired people and their weary movement. Sadly, on that very night, NAACP field representative Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his home in Jackson, Miss.

So those events were the backdrop to the Great March on Washington, as it was also known. When the 250,000 people poured into the capital that August morning, those memories were fresh in their minds, along with their long-suffering experiences of discrimination and injustice.

King came to the podium after a long list of speakers, but just after gospel singer Mahalia Jackson had primed the audience’s spirit with a moving spiritual. In his opening line he correctly prophesied that the day “will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

Before he got to the familiar litany of “I have a dream” passages, he talked about the state of black America in a year that marked the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. One hundred years later, he said, “the Negro still is not free.”

King talked about the country having given black people a bad check, one which unfortunately “has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’” There are still those today who feel that dividends for blacks from America’s bank of justice are sorely insufficient.

And the civil rights leader spoke of the “fierce urgency of Now” in confronting the nation’s discriminatory practices in employment, education and the basic right to vote.

Yes, some things have changed, and yet I’m sure King would be surprised to know that we’re still fighting against voter suppression, battling an often biased criminal justice system and dealing with a black unemployment rate that is far higher than the rest of the nation.

Fifty years after the dream the struggle continues.