Institutional racism in the United States has declined greatly
thanks to the work of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Yet 'we have not reached the promised land MLK talked about,' says
one scholar, nor has the economic equality King sought for all races
Awaiting a panel discussion titled, "What if Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. had Tweeted the Civil Rights Movement," Franklin Henderson
sits in the darkened Steve Allen Theater, talking about the life he
didn't have to lead because of King.
"We didn't have a poll tax in Miami, Florida where I grew up or a
lot of the other hurdles blacks had," says the retired, Past
National President of the Ninth & Tenth (Horse) Calvary Association.
"He brought civil rights in America a very long way."
"But not far enough," says his wife, Doris. "There is still a
long way to go."
The two comments echo the discussion today among scholars,
activists, and African American community leaders in cities across
America. A brief newsreel of civil rights marches, the fire hosing
of blacks in the streets, and the discriminatory practices of the
South sets the backdrop for the evening's discussion of how today's
social media - as harnessed by several countries during the Arab
Spring - would have eased the ability of King to organize his
marches and boycotts.
But would it have lengthened his legacy?
"There are lots of whites, Latinos, and African Americans
themselves who thought that with the election of Barack Obama, we
had ventured into an America without racism," says history professor
Maghan Keita, director of Villanova's Institute for Global
Interdisciplinary Studies. "Yet, here we are, four decades after
King, with encampments in public places still calling for the kind
of equality he was after."
President Obama has weighed in with his official proclamation of
the federal holiday.
"On a hot summer day nearly half a century ago, an African
American preacher with no official title or rank gave voice to our
Nation's deepest aspirations, sharing his dream of an America that
ensured the true equality of all our people," says the presidential
declaration. "From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired a movement that would push our
country toward a more perfect Union."
Interviews with scholars, academics, and sociologists across the
country show that assessment under question.
"For most whites the playing field has been leveled and what has
cemented this perception in the psyche of most whites was the
election of a black president," adds Dr. Charles Gallagher, Chair of
the Sociology Dept. at La Salle University, who studies race and
ethnicity. Yet, he adds in an email, "the social science data is
unequivocal: institutional racism continues to shape the life
chances of racial minorities in America. …