As we celebrate another Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday, I find myself asking some hard questions about where we are in America relative to Dr. King’s dream for America.
Last Friday, in a stunning Washington Post poll of African-Americans, the data showed that eight in 10 black citizens feel pessimistic about America. Worse, they believe Donald J. Trump to be a racist. Stop for a moment and think about how sad it is that a significant population of American citizens believe their president to be racist. If this is true, we are clearly not making the progress that I think we all hoped for after Barack Obama’s presidency. And the question is why?
As we reflect on the legacy of Dr. King, we should, not just as African-Americans, but as all Americans, re-read his words from the “I have a Dream Speech” in August 1963:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
If you look at the wealth gap in America, the housing gap, the diversity and inclusion gap, the social and criminal justice gap, and on an on, black people are still nowhere near close to parity and equality. The numbers do not lie. Yes, we have made progress. We have had a black president. I, personally, am a beneficiary of the progress of my parent’s generation, who marched with Dr. King and others for civil rights. But on the broader question of whether or not black citizens have yet to be the rightful heirs of the promissory note of enfranchisement in America, the answer is a resounding: “Not yet.”
In Virginia, my home state, there is to be a pro-gun rally at the state capitol in Richmond today. The FBI had made arrests of neo-Nazis who had caches of guns and may have been planning violence. A spokeswoman for the Charlottesville League of Women Voters committee on gun safety offered a statement on Friday: “It’s with regret that we are canceling our annual trip to Richmond to attend the Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally and to meet with our legislators in support of common-sense gun legislation.”
She continued, “The legislation we support in no way takes away the rights of law-abiding firearm owners, but rather will make Virginia a safer place to live. Due to the governor’s caution and declaring a state of emergency we made the decision not to attend. This however in no way will stop our support and advocacy for common sense gun legislation." "It's very frustrating,” said Judith Freeman, a spokeswoman for the Charlottesville Coalition for Gun Violence Prevention. “We feel like our opportunity at democracy has been compromised."
This rally, whether it happens or not today on a large scale, is seen by citizens and communities of color as a replay of Charlottesville. Governor Ralph Northam, who as we all know was once caught up in his own race-related scandal, has warned that there are groups with “malicious plans” for the rally. He declared a state of emergency. I for one, find it curious that pro-gun activists chose the federal holiday honoring a man like Dr. King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, to make a public stance on the Second Amendment. Dr. King was shot dead by a gun in 1968, in Tennessee. The symbolism could not be more clear. Armed men. Mostly white. Marching with weapons drawn at the Richmond Capitol which was once the capitol of the confederacy. Doing so in protest on the federal holiday of the most notable African-American leader of his day.
My point is this: The time has come for us as Americans to stop denying that the racism of the past still has ramifications on the racial equality of today. This can no longer be a black people’s issue. It must be an American issue. White leaders, stake-holders, elected officials, corporate CEOs, college presidents and industry have got to step up and start having not just “diversity” conversations but “inclusion” conversations that ensure all of us have a seat at the table. And that all of us indeed are heirs to Thomas Jefferson’s eternal words, penned so eloquently in 1776.