As the French are fond of saying, The more things change, the more they stay the same. This year’s 30th anniversary of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. national observance is a good time to assess his legacy and progress (or lack thereof) toward his goals and aspirations for America. That legacy is rather mixed.
As the film “Selma” reminds us, in many ways race relations are vastly better than in Dr. King’s time. In the 21st century, most Americans take for granted equal rights under the law should be our national standard. Such equal rights, however, are far from granted at the state level, especially in the South, where voting restrictions, on minorities in particular, have brought back aspects of the Jim Crow Era. Were it not for such restrictions, particularly in Florida, Al Gore would have succeeded Bill Clinton as president and the Bush-Cheney era would never have occurred. The presidential election George W. Bush won in 2000 was by a 5-4 Supreme Court vote that stopped ballot counting in Florida.
But who then would have thought that eight years later, a black man, Barack Obama, would become president? Ironically, many Americans consider it likely Dr. King would have been the first black president had he not been assassinated before his 40th birthday. We will never know, but we do know assassinations of black people still occur regularly in the United States, and 50 years after the King assassination, they are often perpetrated by law enforcers.
Shades of “Selma,” with this difference: 50 years ago, police used batons and bodily violence to beat up demonstrators; now, it is guns and bodily violence (as in the Ferguson, Mo., shooting and the New York strangulation case) used by police to kill innocent people who happen to be black. That change in tactics does not seem like much of an improvement.
Still, who would have thought 50 years ago 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” where cops would say, on a slow night, “Hey, let’s go over to the West Side and break a few heads!” Those heads were nearly always black, but if the entertainment value of that activity paled, it was always possible to beat up homosexuals who hung out downtown. The underclass did not count then.
Yes, America has come a long way in 50 years, but still has a long way to go. In the wake of the Ferguson case, where the prosecutor lied to the grand jury and withheld evidence, and the Staten Island case, where another miscarriage of justice took place, there have been impressive and meaningful demonstrations in America and beyond. One common theme has been illustrated by the slogan “Black lives matter.”
May it come to pass, in the spirit of Dr. King and other heroes of the civil rights movement, that one day in America the theme will become “All lives matter.” That includes police officers, most (unfortunately, not all) of whom are dedicated risk-takers who deserve praise, not condemnation.
Eugene F. Elander