As the French are fond of saying, The more things change, the more they stay the same. This year's thirtieth anniversary of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Observance seems to be a good time to assess his legacy, and progress (or lack of progress) towards Dr. King's goals and aspirations for America. That legacy is rather mixed.
As the recent film Selma reminds us, in many ways civil rights and race relations are vastly better than they were in Dr. King's time. In the 21st century, most Americans take for granted that equal rights under the law should be our national standard. Such equal rights, however, are far from granted at the State level, particularly in the South, where new voting restrictions, on minorities in particular, have brought back aspects of the Jim Crow Era once again. Were it not for such restrictions, particularly in the State of Florida, Al Gore would have succeeded Bill Clinton as President, and the Bush-Cheney era would have been non-existent. The only presidential election George W. Bush won in 2000 was by a 5-to-4 vote of the Supreme Court which stopped ballot counting in Florida. That still hurts.
But then, who would have thought at that time that a mere eight years later, a Black man, Barack Obama, would become president of the United States of America? Ironically, many Americans consider it likely that Dr. King would have been the first Black president, had he not been assassinated before he could reach his fortieth birthday. We will never know if that historic event would have occurred, but we can and do know that assassinations of Black people still occur with regularity in the United States of America -- and now, nearly fifty years after the King assassination, they are often perpetrated by law enforcers such as the local police. Shades of Selma, with this difference: there, some fifty years ago, the police used batons and body parts to beat up demonstrators; now, it is guns and body parts (as in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting and in the Staten Island, New York strangulation case) being used by police to kill innocent people who just happen to be Black. That change in tactics does not seem like much of an improvement for the U.S.
Still, who would have thought, nearly fifty years ago, that the cutting-edge civil rights issue in this polyglot nation would be Gay Rights? Growing up in Dayton, Ohio in the 1950s, I used to frequent a "police bar" on North Main Street where the cops would say, on a slow night, "Hey, let's go over the the West Side and break a few heads!" On the West Side of Dayton, those heads were nearly always Black, but if the entertainment value of that police activity paled, it was always possible to beat up on some homosexuals who hung out mostly downtown. In those long-lost times, MLK stood for "Martin Lucifer Koon" and civil rights were largely limited to those of the correct skin color and socioeconomic class. The Underclass did not count, back then.
Yes, America has come a long way in the past fifty years -- but this nation still has a long, long way to go. In the wake of the Ferguson death-by-cop-bullet case, where the prosecutor lied to the grand jury and withheld evidence to produce a not-guilty verdict, and in the wake of the Staten Island death-by-cop-chokehold case, where another such blatant miscarriage of justice took place, there have been impressive and meaningful protest demonstrations all over America, and even beyond. One common theme of those demonstrations has been illustrated by the slogan: BLACK LIVES MATTER. May it come to pass, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the other heroes of the civil rights movement, that one fine day in America the slogan and theme will become: ALL LIVES MATTER. That, of course, includes the lives of police officers, most of whom are dedicated risk-takers who deserve praise, not condemnation -- most, but unfortunately, not all of them.
Sadly, as a nation --and even as individual members of American society -- we do indeed still have such a long, long way to go. But, just as the French say that the more things change, the more they stay the same, the Chinese say that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We have taken that step -- now the journey of civil rights achievement must continue, until all lives do indeed matter.
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Eugene Elander has been a progressive social and political activist for decades. As an author, he won the Young Poets Award at 16 from the Dayton Poets Guild for his poem, The Vision. He was chosen Poet Laureate of (more...)