As we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, we also should celebrate how much of his dream has been realized. Not that racism has disappeared or barriers to minority achievement have disappeared. But after the election of Barack Obama as president, we can imagine a time when all men and women will be judged by the content of their character.
When Martin Luther King’s birthday became a holiday, some saw the day as being for blacks only. However, Rev. King’s message was for everyone. He spoke for all Americans, not just African-Americans.
It took enormous moral courage to lead a campaign of nonviolence in the face of pervasive injustice. The 20th century saw many violent revolutions, with often horrific consequences. Dr. King led a nonviolent transformation of the most powerful and influential nation on the planet.
The process wasn’t easy and many people suffered greatly while pursuing justice. And the end of legal discrimination didn’t end social hostility.
In his most famous speech, delivered in August 1963, King observed that one hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation: “the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”
No longer, however.
Rev. King said at the time that he had a dream, that “one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’.” His dream continued, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
America still falls short of its high ideals, but today far more Americans believe that all men are created equal and-just as important–act on that belief. Some Americans still fixate on someone’s color (or country of origin, sex, or other extraneous factor), but today most care far more about a person’s character.
Which is the only way Barack Obama could be elected president. Could Dr. King have imagined that less than a half century after that August day an African-American would sit in the Oval Office? That a black man would be America’s face to the world and the world’s most powerful person? Obviously, symbolism goes only so far. Minorities know far too well that we remain especially vulnerable to our many economic and social ills. After the emotional high of the evening of the first Tuesday of November in 2008, African-Americans had to go to work-or go look for work-on Wednesday morning.
Nevertheless, we recognize how far we have come. A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds a far more confident and hopeful black community. According to the Pew Center, “Despite the bad economy, blacks’ assessments about the state of black progress in America have improved more dramatically during the past two years than at any time in the past quarter century.”
The point is not that African-Americans have become incurable Pollyannas. More blacks than whites are dissatisfied with their lives and communities, and more than 80 percent doubt America’s basic racial fairness. Nevertheless, reports Pew: “nearly twice as many blacks now (39%) as in 2007 (20%) say that the ‘situation of black people in this country’ is better than it was five years earlier, and this more positive view is apparent among blacks of all age groups and income levels. Looking ahead, blacks are even more upbeat. More than half (53%) say that life for blacks in the future will be better than it is now, while just 10% say it will be worse,” also a significant improvement from 2007.
Although expectations of the impact of President Obama’s election have dimmed over the last year, a majority of African-Americans still believes that his victory improved race relations. (A third of whites say the same, with most opining that it made no difference.)
Martin Luther King’s birthday should lead us to simultaneously celebrate how far America has come and rededicate ourselves to completing the fight against injustice. We can finally foresee the fulfillment of Rev. King’s dream. Barack Obama’s success demonstrates that after decades of struggle by Dr. King and those who picked up his mantle, Americans increasingly do judge their fellow citizens by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) and an MSNBC political analyst. Bernard is a regular panelist with MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews and The McLaughlin Group, and a political commentator for The Hill’s Congress blog.