On Sept. 30, 1962, Oxford, Miss. erupted into violence when local white authorities, students and violent segregationists rioted to prevent a 29-year-old Air Force veteran named James Meredith from attending the University of Mississippi because he was Black.
That was almost 60 years ago.
Six months later, in a letter published in the New York Amsterdam News, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on the public to support Meredith and his struggle, calling him “a symbol of self-respect and dignity.”
Then came the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the open housing movement, the Poor People’s Campaign and, just a week after King’s assassination, the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Now as we celebrate what would have been King’s 93rd birthday, we can’t help but look back at all the years that have passed from that moment to now and take stock of how far we’ve come — and how far we still have to go.
Let’s be honest. I’m not pretending that nothing has changed since the heady days of the civil rights movement.
The 117th Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse in history with 59 Black, 47 Hispanic, 17 Asian and six Native American members of the House and Senate. Black college attainment has risen from just 4 percent in 1962 to 26 percent in 2019. Diversity is on display across metropolitan America, and crosses aren’t burning in my front yard — though a burning cross was found in a predominantly Black county of Alabama in 2020 and a man was sentenced this year for burning a cross in the front yard of a Virginia family in June 2020.
So, while we aren’t where we were, in terms of race relations, we aren’t where we need to be — not by a long shot. Here are some examples:
- In 1962, the average white family was about seven times wealthier than its Black counterpart. In 2019, that gap had grown wider, with median wealth at $188,200 for white families and a mere $24,100 for Black, according to Brookings Institution. In fact, Brookings says, this persistent gap “reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens.”
- Black poverty has dropped by more than half since 1966, while poverty in the white community has stayed relatively flat. Of course, the disparity is still striking — Black families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than white.
- Black unemployment continues to be roughly double that of white unemployment, a gap that has remained largely unchanged since the 1970s.
- Black families make about 65 cents on the dollar compared to white, a disparity that has continued for the past 50 years.
- About 40 percent of African Americans are poor enough to qualify for welfare, housing assistance and other government programs and, of course, there’s the school-to-prison pipeline, which, following mass incarceration’s kickoff in the 1970s, leaves us in a situation where roughly one in three Black men can expect to spend at least part of their lives in prison.
You see, King’s Dream isn’t dead, but it appears it’s sleeping. So, it’s up to us to keep pushing for affordable housing and economic opportunity for all Americans. It’s up to us to demand that health care be affordable and accessible for all. It’s up to us to end mass incarceration, to fund quality education, and to secure the right to vote for every American.
To honor King, we should rededicate ourselves to the vision he articulated so memorably, time and again, to ensure that the long arc of our moral universe bends toward justice and weaves that single garment of destiny.
Let’s take this day and, instead of just honoring King’s example, let’s begin living it.
Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, a CBS News political contributor, and a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.