When Baltimore erupted in riots 50 years ago, it wasn’t just about the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. any more than the riots of 2015 were just about the death of Freddie Gray. Then and now, an unjust death was a spark that set off explosive grievances about a system that produced wildly divergent opportunities and outcomes for blacks and whites in nearly every realm of life — wealth, education, the criminal justice system, health and on and on.
At the time of King’s death, the nation was acutely focused on the impacts of a separate and unequal society, due both to his later-life advocacy around issues of housing and poverty and to the release a few months earlier of the Kerner Commission report, which warned starkly of the risks of creating a permanent underclass. And now, 50 years later, much of the commentary about the anniversaries of the report and King’s death have focused on just how little has changed. Black unemployment is still double that of whites. The wealth gap between the races has ballooned. The disparity in educational attainment has widened, life expectancy for blacks hasn’t kept pace, and the percentage of black men who are incarcerated has exploded.
Statistical comparisons like that are all over the mainstream press, but in black media, the commentary takes on a visceral tone. “White America and its African-American sycophants will refer to the improvised ending of [King’s] 1963 speech” — the part when he wished his children would be judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin — “and point to Oprah, Obama, Beyoncé, and Tiger and laud the change in America,” Mike Jones, a member of the St. Louis American’s editorial board, wrote this week. “But the black truth is we’ve made little to no progress.”
It’s not that nothing has changed in race relations since 1968. Our conscious attitudes, or at least those we aspire to hold, have progressed tremendously. In the aftermath of King’s assassination, The Sun sent reporters and photographers out for a man-on-the-street column, and they sent back a string of quotes from whites who didn’t want to talk about it for fear of agitating the black community. It wasn’t until the last two paragraphs that The Sun managed to quote a man it referred to as “a Negro and a cab driver,” and only then for his report on what his white passengers thought of things. In the wake of the 1968 riots, Maryland’s Republican governor made his reputation as a law-and-order race baiter with a well-publicized berating of Baltimore’s black leaders for failing to keep the peace, a performance that may have landed him on Richard Nixon’s ticket a few months later. After the riots in 2015, Maryland’s Republican governor shot hoops in West Baltimore and listened to residents’ complaints about the lack of resources and opportunities in their communities. There are glaring exceptions, of course — starting with President Donald Trump’s observation that there were “very fine people” on both sides of last summer’s conflict between white supremacists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville — but few Americans today would profess to disagree with the dream King expressed in his 1963 march on Washington.
But what about his dream of 1968? By then, he had moved beyond seeking to tear down the barriers to equality and toward trying to build up the structures necessary to actually achieve it. That’s the step we have not taken. Just weeks after Gov. Larry Hogan was walking the streets of Sandtown, he canceled the Red Line light rail that could have been an economic lifeline to West Baltimore. (He has, in fairness, made efforts to help the city by reducing blight and fighting crime, among other things, but the symbolism of the Red Line is inescapable.) When white parents in Baltimore County have been given the opportunity to foster integration through school redistricting, they have balked. It’s the same with proposed laws to help housing subsidy recipients to move to neighborhoods with better schools and job opportunities. And pursuing something like the merger of the city and county school districts — or even the city and county themselves — is beyond the realm of even being discussed.
Fifty years after King’s death and the riots that followed, nearly all of us believe that people of all races should have equal chances in life. Now we need to show we’re willing to do something about it. That is what honoring Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy demands.
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