When the federal government's labor report came out Dec. 17, we learned troubling news. Heading into the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. - who ranks among history's greatest civil rights leaders - black Americans have suffered the sharpest drop of all Americans in labor force participation. After a quarterly decline of 0.3 percent, the black labor force participation rate of 60.2 is the lowest since December 1977. A rate of 65.6 is the lowest on record for black men.
Today, as the nation celebrates the legacy of King, it's a reminder that we still have a ways to go.
So much has been written about King's March on Washington and the "I Have Dream" Speech of 1967 that most Americans know what the dream was about. It was about equal opportunity to succeed.
What many of us don't know was what led up to King's vision. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was a turbulent time in our nation's history. Fifty years ago, America was not an easy place to be black - something we tend to forget with the passage of time.
From the bombing at a Birmingham church that killed four young girls, to the demonstrations against discrimination despite dogs and fire hoses, the Civil Rights era was violent and long. It was a time of dynamic change. At the center of the marches, the sit-ins and struggles was King, then head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
King was an organizer, a leader with an aura of charisma that we don't see in today's leadership. He was willing to sacrifice his family, his career and eventually his life for a cause. Despite his human failings, he will be remembered for his oratory and his leadership.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and sent to jail because he and others were protesting the treatment of blacks in Birmingham, Ala.. Stuck in a cell, King wrote a long letter to several clergymen and others who had criticized him as an outside agitator and troublemaker.
King explained his involvement: "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
Later that year he made his famous speech in Washington, a pivotal moment in U.S. history and what many have called a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement. Five years later, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
What we also don't realize is the impact King had around the world. His true legacy was seen in the upheaval in South Africa that led to the overthrow of apartheid. His legacy is evident in the struggles of young women in Arab countries to escape oppressive treatment. Wherever people come together to end discrimination and push for freedom, King's legacy lives on.
Thanks in large part to Dr. King, we have made great strides toward liberating black Americans from overt bigotry and government regulations that kept them at the back of the bus. Economic data, such as the latest jobs report, show our culture has far to go before black Americans enjoy the full economic opportunities America affords.