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Commentary

Fifty Years After King’s Peace Prize Speech, Much Remains to Be Done



Wednesday marks 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. This golden anniversary is an important occasion for the nation, particularly for African-Americans.

King’s acceptance speech was powerful and insightful, fully consistent with the man. But half a century later, some of his concerns still remain timely.

King spoke of being troubled because many Americans were still denied their human and constitutional rights, simply due to the color of their skin. He spoke of his hopes that this would change, and that peace and equality would be truly realized in his county and around the globe.

Unfortunately, the world at large is every bit as troubled today as it was in 1964, maybe even more. Conflict, not peace, is the rule. On the home front, social unrest and even looting and violence have followed the official, grand-jury exonerations of the white police officers who killed African-Americans Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island.

Some have dubbed today’s mistrust in law enforcement a “crisis of confidence.” This sentiment and its underlying causes are disturbing, but all Americans would do well to recall the words and deeds of King.

Racial discrimination, segregation, and police brutality were much worse in his day, yet he responded with the peaceful protests that were his hallmark. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, blacks and whites marched hand-in-hand and went to jail together to promote racial justice in America.

Were he alive today, King would surely acknowledge some progress. Jim Crow has pretty much departed, governors no longer block schoolhouse doors, and official segregation is, for the most part, a thing of the past.

King would be delighted that an African American now occupies the White House, but he would be justified in worrying about other social indicators. The unemployment rate for black people is typically twice that of whites, and official poverty statistics show a similar gap. The Census Bureau reports that 27.2 percent of African-Americans lived in poverty last year, compared to 12.3 percent of whites.

The gap in black-white incarceration rates is even larger. According to the NACCP, of the 2.3 million people jailed or imprisoned in the United States, almost 1 million are African-Americans.

Significant racial disparities are found even in childhood. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reports that while black children account for 18 percent of the county’s preschool enrollments, they make up 48 percent of pre-K kids with multiple out-of-school suspensions. The same study reports that black students overall are expelled at three times the rate of white students.

Unfortunately, public schools are often ill-equipped to narrow this gap. For example, a federal study also notes that black students are far more likely than whites to attend schools that employ teachers who lack state certification and licensing requirements.

Though not an economist, King was certainly an eternal optimist. He dared to dream that one day African-Americans would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Echoing the pioneering Pan-African thinker Edward Blyden, he understood that only if the nation elevated individual character above color could African-Americans arrive at the Promised Land.

“I may not get there with you,” King said, and he didn’t. He fell to an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, one of the darkest days in American history. The question for African-Americans is whether they will get to that Promised Land in King’s absence.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King was awarded the world’s most famous prize for humanitarian achievement, black men and women are participating in all aspects of American life and making significant contributions in business, academia, public service, and the arts. If greater gains are to come, particularly on the economic front, character remains the key.

Individually and collectively, African-Americans need to keep their eyes on that prize.


Robert L. Morris, Jr., is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif.






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