Dr. King was right: The arc of history bends toward justice | Opinion

On Monday, we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday honoring him. Have race relations improved since King gave his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963? The murder of George Floyd and others seems to indicate otherwise. But as the reverend suggested, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

What would King think about the current state of race relations in America?


“I believe Dr. King would have mixed feelings,” says Abel Bartley, director of Pan African studies at Clemson University. “Proud of progress that’s been made, saddened about the ongoing violence and radical right turn the nation has recently taken, and pressing the government to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill.”

Let’s not forget that when King delivered that famous plea for equality and understanding, bigotry and segregation were still part and parcel to our lives and laws. For example, intermarriage between the races was still against the law in 17 states, including Florida. Those laws were declared unconstitutional in 1967 by a unanimous Supreme Court. And according to the documentary “I Am a Man: The Struggle For Civil Rights in Florida,” our state was second only to Mississippi in the number of lynchings per capita from 1877 to 1950.


Meanwhile, Florida produced some of the leaders of the civil rights movement, including A. Philip Randolph, the labor leader who spearheaded a group convincing President Harry Truman to accelerate the drive to equality by issuing executive orders promoting fair employment and ending racial segregation in the military.

How do things stand now, compared to when King gave his historic speech?

The African-American poverty rate now registers at about 18%. Still way too high — but about half what it was in King’s time. More than 25% of African Americans have completed four years of higher education, compared to just 4% in 1963. From 2000 to 2018, college enrollment rates among 18 to 24 year olds increased for African Americans from 31% to 37%.

Progress is also undeniably evident as far as African-American representation in politics, with our current Congress more diverse than ever. In 1963, only four members of the House of Representatives were African-American, with no Hispanic or Asian-American representation. Today there are 54 African Americans in Congress, 44 Hispanics, 19 Asian Americans and five Native Americans.

Similarly, there were no African-American senators in the 87th Congress (1961-62), with one Hispanic and one Asian American. Today there are three African Americans, seven Hispanics and two Asian Americans serving in the Senate.

Of course, we’ve also had our first African American president since King’s speech. Right before his initial campaign for president, Barack Obama said “I would not be here if, time and time again, the torch had not been passed to a new generation.” Similar to King, President Obama is often seen as a gifted orator. “I know Dr. King would have been very proud of him,” says Bartley.

So while the battle for justice continues, we should also recognize concrete advances that have been made since the 1960s, thanks to King and those who fought for equality alongside him. To truly honor him, let’s recall and realize the heart of his vision: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Mike Vogel lives in South Florida and has written columns for numerous publications, including Newsday and the Sun Sentinel.