(“Broken Obelisk” at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, TX)

On this official holiday commemorating the birth and life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (his birthday was actually last Tuesday), it’s worthwhile to look at how far we have come since he was taken from us almost 40 years ago.

I was born in Louisiana, where most of my family still lives. My mother’s father is approximately the same age as Dr. King would have been. He still tells me tales transmitted to him from his elders that grew up in the direct aftermath of the Civil War, tales of the War of Northern Aggression, tales of a noble South kept down by its jealous brother to the north, tales of an African population well kept by their masters (because it was only in slaveholders’ interest to give the greatest care to their property.) Even though he still holds the same views as he did growing up in the segregated South, in his lifetime, we’ve seen not only the legal barriers lifted from former slaves to the same rights as their former masters, we’ve seen a changing of attitudes.  

For example, in 1958, only 4% of Americans approved of marriage between whites and blacks, while 94% disapproved. By 1968, the year of King’s assassination, that split was 20-73. By 1983, it was 43-5, and now the number is 79-15. When the Supreme Court recently restricted using race as a factor in assigning schools in a case of voluntary integration by an elected school board, a majority of Americans disapproved.

Attitudes on Dr. King himself have changed, too. As Rick Perlstein notes, at the time of his assassination, conservative figures as prominent as Ronald Reagan (then governor of California) essentially blamed King’s violent death on his own doctrine of civil disobedience: “the great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.” Holy dogwhistle, Batman! 15 years later, Reagan, pressured by congressional Democrats, signed the bill making MLK Day a federal holiday. Now conservatives regularly invoke King as a great man, even calling him a conservative!

What we need to remember is that even though we have come so far, we still have a long way to go, as any one who has paid attention to the Sherman George situation in St. Louis can tell you. In America as in Missouri, people of color are more likely to live in poverty, live without health care, and die at a younger age. African Americans have an average of about $6000 in assets, while the average white family has about $80,000. We’re still a ways from realizing Martin Luther King’s dream, and as we commemorate Dr. King’s legacy, we should remember that he struggled immensely along with millions of others to get what he got, and that struggle has got to continue.

(Inscription on MLK Statue in Fountain Park, St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Flickr User I Love North St. Louis )