Legalized civil rights has not transformed this nation into The Beloved Community that Dr. King so often wrote and spoke about. He saw “love thy neighbor” not as some mushy soft concept but as a powerful weapon against hate. He spoke continuously of reconciliation because he knew we would have to forgive each other’s failings before “we the people” could move forward together. I now believe that Dr. King’s idealized community was informed more by God’s law and less by the law of man.

That said, if this man of God were alive today I believe he would demand that the nation take a hard look at the mass incarceration of young black and brown men and women that has eviscerated too many communities in our nation. He would pressure leaders, not just for housing, schools and employment but for an end to an unjust criminal justice system that has race neutral laws on the books but that are enforced in biased and disparate ways. This unjust justice threatens to render all that Dr. King stood for irrelevant.

The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act does not protect 1.4 million black men in America who have lost their right to vote, today, because they ended up in prison on offenses for which their white counterparts received treatment or community service.

Employment discrimination is illegal but far too many African American men and women who served time behind bars can’t get professional licenses that would allow them to pursue meaningful careers or even self employment. 

The 1965 Immigration Nationality Act has not kept Hispanic and Asian Americans from being explicitly singled out for immigration enforcement.    The disparate treatment of minorities by our criminal justice system begins and ends with judgments made at every stage through racial and ethnic lenses. Discretion is exercised through the prism of race and we’ve not done enough to recognize this problem and insist that police, prosecutors, judges and juries be taught to recognize unconscious bias and the unfairness attendant to it. If the law is neutral but the enforcement of that law is unfair then we end up with splintered families, broken lives, and a generation of young people who don’t respect the nation’s laws because those laws don’t respect them.

Dr. King would not have been satisfied with the symbolism of a few successful escapees into the mainstream of America, me, President Obama, and Oprah included. He would have insisted that we continue to work tirelessly on the difficult problems that make the comfortable uncomfortable. He would have insisted, especially during an economic recession, that we honestly care for others more than ourselves.  

I am delighted that the memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is finished. It is a powerful reminder that his life’s work is not.