At Your Service: Jan. 23, 2008

I do not know what it is like to be white; any more than I can know what it is like to be a man. I was born into this life a black female and these factors, combined with the occurrence of that birth in the post World War II era, account for much of who I am. From this perspective, I offer a retrospective on the 40 years since an assassin’s bullet took the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
In order to provide some context, I draw from a lesser known passage in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Monument: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation…. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
The roots of the fight for civil rights were deep seeded in a history of social and legal racism. Those who fought the battle watched as many barriers fell. “Separate but equal,” the prevailing approach to education, was struck down by the Supreme Court. Congress gave the right to vote to every citizen. Affirmative action programs were enacted to mandate equal employment opportunities. But perhaps the most significant contribution of the civil rights movement was that it challenged every American to look in our hearts for beliefs and attitudes that separate us from one another
One doesn’t have to look far to see progress. A black man is running for the Presidency and he is winning on many fronts. Further indication of how far we have come as a nation is that his leading challenger in the race for his party’s nomination is a woman. Progress, however, does not necessarily mean that the fight for civil rights has been won; many of the concerns that Martin Luther King addressed persist.
In 1975 I became an executive at a major corporation. While I did not get the job because of affirmative action, I probably would not have been given the opportunity if it had not been a hovering presence over the conscience of corporate America. I was eminently qualified for the job I was given and distinguished my tenure by results that led to a series of rapid promotions; my last position carried the title of vice president. The glass ceiling that stopped my progress no longer exists at that level; but it still limits access to seats of real power. Women account for a scant 15.6 percent of corporate officers, while 14.9 percent of board seats are held by a minority individual. Minority women hold just three percent of board seats in the Fortune 100. (Source: the Alliance for Board Diversity, 2006)
The disproportionate representation of black Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system is well documented. Blacks comprise 13 percent of the national population, but 30 percent of people arrested, 41 percent of people in jail and 49 percent of those in prison (Source: Human Rights Watch). Last year we sent more young black men to jail than we did to college and more on our penal systems than we did on public education. While the conditions and situations that have generated this reality are many, prevailing racial injustice cannot be ignored as a critical factor.
The news has been rife the last year with stories about the appearances of nooses in places frequented by young blacks or as a warning in places they might want to go. The recent cover of a national magazine suggested that Tiger Woods be lynched in order to give his competition a chance to win. The editor of that magazine was fired, but not before the magazine was published with a noose on its cover.
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 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.’”
His dream is not yet realized 40 years later. We can, however, draw from his legacy as we move forward. Dr. King lived his life dedicated to the connections and similarities that we share as members of the human family. Integral to his leadership of the civil-rights movement was his understanding that combating the history of cultural and legal racism required a rich diversity of people who would stand together on behalf of all people. He understood that there is a commonality about injustice, regardless of who it affects or where it takes place and frequently said, “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”
It is important to recognize how very far we have come and at the same time acknowledge that we have not reached our destination. The diversity that is now becoming almost a fact of life in so many institutions and places in the 21st century would be applauded by Dr. King. But, following his applause, he would say, as he did 45 years ago:
“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”