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GUEST COLUMN: Where is America, 50 years after MLK's assassination?

By: Henry D. Allen, Jr
January 15, 2018 Updated: January 15, 2018 at 4:06 am
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Today, across America, communities will celebrate the legacy and life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with marches, rallies and other programs. If Dr. King were alive today, he would be 89-years-old. April 4, 2018, will be 50 years since his assassination.

The national Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an African-American civil rights organization, had a large role in the American civil rights movement. Dr. King was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's first president.

As the president of the Pikes Peak Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the local chapter of the national SCLC, I often contemplate what if Dr. King were still alive and able to provide his opinions on the state of America and the lives of African Americans, since his assassination. I wonder if he would support a country that once again appears to be splitting itself down the middle with hate. Or would he simply say, "Hate can not drive out hate", or would he tell us, "Let no man pull you low enough to hate him."

I think he would be pleased with some of the progress of America in its quest to insure all Americans have equal opportunity in the pursuit of the American dream. But I believe he would also remind us that we still have roads to travel before this is a reality.

According to a CBS News article, the African American unemployment rate fell to 6.8 percent, the lowest rate in 45 years. Still, the rate for African American workers remains well above that for whites and some other groups, something experts attribute in large part to decades of discrimination and disadvantages.

According to the National Urban League's "State of Black America 2017,," fewer African Americans are dropping out of high school and more are earning associates degrees, but racial disparities still plague the U.S. education system.

I can imagine Dr. King asking America why, after signing into law the 1994 crime bill, does America have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world and African American men are the most incarcerated citizens in America, with African American females quickly catching up.

After the fair housing legislation was passed in 1968 during the civil rights era, the black home ownership rate increased for 30 years and reached nearly 50 percent in 2004, but those gains have been erased in the last 12 years.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the home ownership rate for black households ended 2016 at 41.7 percent, nearly a 50-year low.

Equally troubling is a widening gap between black home ownership and other major ethnic groups. The black home ownership rate is now 30.5 percentage points lower than non-Hispanic whites (72.2 percent) and 22 percentage points lower than the national homeownership rate of 63.7 percent. It is also 4.6 percentage points lower than the Hispanic homeowner rate.

Ron Cooper, president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers stated, "Homeownership is the number one way for African Americans to build wealth."

As I continue to imagine, I can see Dr. King describing our current situation in one of his speeches, "The Other America", where he described literally two Americas:

"One America is beautiful for situation. And, in a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America, millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity."

"But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America, millions of work-starved men walk the street daily in the search for jobs that do not exist. In this America, millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America, people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."

I can see him using his speech "A Realistic Look at the Question of Progress in the Area of Race Relations" dated April 10, 1957.

"And so we've come a long, long way since 1896."

"It would be beautiful to stop here. But I've tried to tell you about how far we've come, and it would be fine if every speaker in America could stop right here. But if we stopped here we would be the victims of a dangerous optimism. If we stopped here we would be the victims of an illusion wrapped in superficiality. If we stopped here we would be the victims of an optimism, which makes for deadening complacency and stagnant passivity. In order to tell the truth, we must move on. See, not only have we come a long, long way, but truth impels us to admit that we have a long, long way to go."

"Yes, we must continue to gain the ballot. One of the great needs of the hour is for the Negro to gain political power through the ballot."

"We've got to continue to persuade the federal government to use all its power to enforce the laws of the land."

"I'm aware of the fact that there are some people telling us to slow down."

"They are saying all over. There are some writing letters from the South to the North saying, 'Slow up, you are going to fast.' Well, I've never quite understood that. They talk about gradualism and I always felt that at least gradualism meant starting and moving, and how in the world can you slow up when you haven't even started?"

In my thinking, I can hear Dr. King ending his assessment of the state of American with another paragraph from his speech, The Other America.

"Let me say another thing that's more in the realm of the spirit I guess, that is that if we are to go on in the days ahead and make true brotherhood a reality, it is necessary for us to realize more than ever before, that the destinies of the Negro and the white men are tied together. Now there are still a lot of people who don't realize this. The racists don't realize this. But it is a fact now that Negroes and whites are tied together, and we need each other. The Negro need the white man to save him from his fear. The white man needs the Negro to save him from his guilt. We are tied together in so many ways, our language, our music, our cultural patterns, our material prosperity, and even our food are an amalgam of black and white."

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Henry D. Allen Jr. is president of the Pikes Peak Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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