The lines that clearly separated black and white America in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s time "have grown almost imperceptible today," Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele told a Howard County commemoration of the slain civil rights leader yesterday.
But the blurring of racial lines doesn't mean that King's goals have been realized, Steele said, as economic and political divisions now keep groups apart.
"While it's still about race," it's also about other issues, such as jobs, he said.
Steele said he may have been the first African-American elected to statewide office, "but it took 300 years for it to happen."
The lieutenant governor was the guest speaker at Howard County's 19th Commemorative Birthday Celebration, held in the Long Reach High School auditorium in Columbia. About 200 people attended the program, organized by the Martin Luther King Jr. Howard County Holiday Commission.
Steele said he recently had time to reflect on King's landmark "I Have a Dream" speech when he was asked to present it at a tribute last week.
Steele recalled that like many children of the time, he grew up with pictures of three people on his living room wall: Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
Though many aspects of King's legacy stand out, including his strength, it was his drive to continue in the face of adversity that made his work so remarkable, Steele said.
It "inspires us to continue on and be a part of his dream," Steele said. "Without him, we would be wandering aimlessly today."
He asked the audience, "What is your story? What will be your story, and will you persevere as it unfolds?"
Steele lamented that African-American history may be reduced at times to what he described as "a 15-second sound bite during February," when Black History Month is celebrated.
However, "if history has taught us anything, it has taught us that the history of America is a lived history," he said. And America cannot help embracing the diversity that it often praises, he said.
"It is time to rise up, rise up on the shoulders of those who came before us," Steele said. "We are post-civil rights-generation Americans."
King and other freedom fighters worked to "let freedom ring" for this generation and future generations, Steele said. That road to civil rights challenges us, he said.
"Persevere and know the dream is alive. Why? Because it is alive in you," Steele said.
Other speakers at the event agreed that more needs to be done.
"We have made tremendous strides, but that's why it's important that the journey continues," said Howard County Executive James N. Robey.
Still, "when we put in the time to assess what this man [King] has done to the world, it's mind boggling," he said.
Holiday commissioner Zain A. Hasan, a student at River Hill High School, used a number of quotes from King to describe how the civil rights leader would want people to continue to strive against inequality.
"Martin Luther King Jr. meant that every person has an opportunity to change the world and change our lives," Hasan said. "Discrimination has gone down since 9/11, but it hasn't gone away entirely."
Injustice remains a threat, he said, stating that people might face state-sanctioned discrimination in the name of the Patriot Act.
"Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal," Hasan quoted King as saying.
Later, Zain's father, Anwer Hasan, accepted the commission award for his work as president of the Howard County Muslim Council.
Donal Hogan, a King holiday commissioner, said Hasan earned the distinction for his efforts through food drives and other activities to "erase the derogatory stigma that people equate with the name Muslim."
Howard Community College President Mary Ellen Duncan also accepted the Community Service award for the school's Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center.