August 28, 1963 marks a famous moment in United States history. On that day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, a stirring plea for racial equality delivered at the height of the civil rights movement. Fifty-eight years later, King's words still evoke a deep longing for racial justice.
A Turning Point in American History
The 1950s and 1960s saw Black Americans despondent over Jim Crow, segregation, restrictions of their rights, and the threat of violence. The civil rights movement took form as all movements do: Concerned, like-minded people came together to demand justice. Acts of civil disobedience were used to condemn oppression, Black Americans' status as second-class citizens, and acts of violence that took the lives of people like Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Michael Schwerner, and far too many others.
A huge victory for racial equality was won with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark legislation that guaranteed a broad set of civil rights. Just a year before its passage, King delivered his iconic speech in Washington, D.C. This call for compassion, equality, and freedom was delivered so passionately that nearly sixty years later, the "I Have a Dream" speech is still considered one of the most influential speeches in history for facilitating the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
3 Ways the 'I Have a Dream' Speech Resonates in 2021
Here are three ways King's words are still relevant to today's racial equality movements:
1. The Racial Wealth Gap
"One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."
In 2019, the median combined wealth—a measurement that adds projected defined-benefit pensions and Social Security wealth to market wealth—for white families was $596,000 compared to $197,000 for Black families, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In Boston, specifically, a 2015 study found that white households held a median market wealth of $247,500, while Black households held a median market wealth of just $8.
This stark contrast reflects the disproportionate levels of wealth held by American households and is a result of racial injustice. The wealth gap goes back generations, and King's speech makes moving observations on poverty and prosperity that resonate today. We have a moral imperative to change the systems that have allowed such a massive disparity.
2. Disparities in the Criminal Justice and Healthcare Systems
"I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations."
King acknowledged that many in attendance on that day traveled "from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality." The same can be said for many minority groups in the U.S. today. According to the NAACP, one out of every three Black boys born in this country can expect to be sentenced to prison, compared to one out of six Latino boys and one out of seventeen white boys. This translates to vastly disproportionate rates of incarceration: While African Americans and Hispanics represent 32% of the U.S. population as a whole, they represent 56% of the U.S. incarcerated population.
The agonizing murder of George Floyd in 2020—and far too many others—reinvigorated a historic movement demanding that our nation reconsider the criminal justice system. We must do more to overcome racism and personal biases to allow every one of us to demonstrate their greatest potential.
Many inequities have been illuminated by the COVID-19 pandemic as well. Due to factors such as the wealth gap, inadequate healthcare access, working in essential settings, and discrimination, the virus has "unequally affected many racial and ethnic minority groups, putting them more at risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These inequalities existed before the pandemic and will continue to affect minority groups until we address their structural causes. We are obligated to ensure that the universal right to live a healthy life is protected.
3. Marching Ahead, Together
"We cannot walk alone. As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead."
While King's speech focused on calling attention to injustice, he ended it on a note of hope and shared humanity: We can put aside our differences and come together to move forward.
There are many institutions across the nation that embody the legacy of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Here are just a few:
- The NAACP, which was founded by a group of allies from various communities and continues to lead on racial justice and ending structural racism.
- Every state (as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico) has a local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Consider making a donation to your local chapter or getting involved.
- The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., which honors his legacy and the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice.
Through the spirit of social justice, each of us can support the pursuit of opportunity for all. If each of us carves out one peaceful action toward hope and equality, we will inspire new movements and change just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did 58 years ago.
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