Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Let Freedom Ring

"I have a dream that my four 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"

These profound words washed over thousands on this day fifty years ago, changing the course for America forever. In the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Rev. Martin Luther King once and for all called into question the character of a nation that was moving against its own founding principles, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

1963 was a year when America was confronting issues of a critical nature. The Civil Rights movement headed by black leaders big and small, was unrelenting. The Vietnam war was sending young men back in body bags in numbers that were hard to ignore. The cold war was escalating with terrifying visions of a nuclear holocaust. There was violence everywhere and not much hope. In this environment Martin Luther King, guided by Gandhian principles, was talking non-violence and civil disobedience. And when he marched into Washington, his mission was not only to demand racial justice but economic equality.

America in many ways has come some distance in terms of racial justice, but it is no where close to what Martin Luther King envisioned in his historic speech. The economic gulf between white and black, has gotten worse and is only increasing. King knew that racial equality did not amount to much if there was no economic consequence to go along with it. The gathering that took place at the Washington Mall in 1963 was called "March on Washington for jobs and freedom" for a reason. King was clearly calling for a leveling, in terms of economic opportunity for blacks and other disenfranchised groups.

Today blacks lag behind whites in life expectancy and median income. According to The Economist, In 2011 the median household wealth (cash, investments, homes, cars etc. ) for white families was $110,500. For blacks it was $6,314. That means poorer black children are more likely to attend substandard schools and less likely to finish college. They have less money to put towards home ownership, which is the cornerstone of establishing wealth in this country. On average white families buy homes eight years earlier than black ones and have more money to put down on their mortgages. Therefore blacks live in depressed neighborhoods and are more likely to foreclose on their homes. Crime in these neighborhoods is disproportionately high and therefore the incarceration of young black men is excessive. In 2011, 478 of every 100,000 white men and 51 of every 100,000 white women were imprisoned for breaking the law. For black men that rate was 3,023 and for women 129. The black population of America is 13% as opposed to 77% white. Martin Luther King had a clear understanding of the demographics in 1963 and knew that a community that had been oppressed for centuries would need more than just equal freedom to succeed as a race.

This past weekend on a visit to Washington DC, I stood on the very spot where Martin Luther King addressed a sea of humanity, who had gathered in all its colors. When he saw all those hues holding signs, chanting slogans and singing songs of freedom, I am sure he was filled with hope and jubilation. A hope that America would live up to a higher purpose. Where people of all origins could lay claim to this land, as it belonged equally to everyone. There was no single race that could claim it more than any other, as its original owners had long been  vacated. This uniqueness of this land, was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, in all its coincidental enlightenment and contradiction. And it was King in 1963, who eventually brought it to bare fruit for myself and everyone who came before and after me. Without the civil rights movements, minority groups from around the world who make America their home, would not be able to enjoy the freedom and justice, that they take for granted with pride today.

As I climbed up the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial and laid eyes on the Gettysburg Address inscribed on the left wall of the memorial, it became clear to me that the two speeches, separated by a century, had essentially drafted a blue print for America. A framework and guide that has kept hope alive even in the darkest of hours and many a times has brought the nation back from the brink. The election of President Obama in one sense overtly symbolized the culmination of that hope. But it is evident, that though words are powerful and have great meaning, change is always painfully slow, incremental and not always forthcoming.

On one of the stone tablets inside the memorial museum were inscribed the following words by Abraham Lincoln.

"There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence - the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man"

These words were spoken in the 19th century. The dream is yet to be fully realized. It is what it is.