Fifty years ago this week, a seminal moment in history was off many Americans’ radar.
This was the era before cable news and the Internet, so the only view most had of the event was on the evening news and in the daily newspaper the next day.
Even then, Martin Luther King Jr.’s address before the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington was relegated to many back pages, including in this newspaper. Had he spoke of his dream for a more just society before a quarter-million people today, his speech would be broadcast live on every news network, streaming online video and seen by anyone with a TV, laptop, tablet or smartphone.
That half-century span in how news was covered is only one aspect of how different our society was then and now. That African-Americans felt the need to gather in the nation’s capital to affirm their civil rights showed it was a time when such rights were not assumed.
The nation as a whole, and the South in particular, were just beginning the slow move past segregated schools and the “back of the bus” public mentality that had prevailed for so long. Each step in that journey was steeped in pain and blood, hard-won by King and legions of civil rights pioneers who refused to back down against an unyielding establishment.
Thus, the question so many ask today as the anniversary of the march is remembered is: How far have we come? And how far left is there to go?
It’s a rhetorical question, really, for there is no true way to quantify progress the scale of full racial equality. One reason is perspective; how far we have come as a nation in providing equal opportunity will look different to everyone, white and black, and even among each racial group itself based on personal experiences.
Yet it’s difficult to agree on our level of racial achievement for an even simpler reason: It is impossible to tell how far you’ve come unless you know your final destination. And when it comes to true equality, that may be harder to define than we’re willing to admit.
King’s speech certainly laid the groundwork for this vision: A nation where children would join hands across all racial, national and religious barriers and “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
To some extent, we have reached this plateau; our nation’s youth now grow up in a more integrated society than their parents and grandparents, a giant step in the right direction. Where white and black children once kept to themselves purely by design, they now intermingle freely in schools, on ball teams and in neighborhoods where such barriers have long since been breached.
Young people of all races now grow up admiring Will Smith, Beyoncé and Tiger Woods. Adults mark the achievements of Barack Obama, Colin Powell, Thurgood Marshall and Condoleezza Rice, whose ascent to national leadership roles has ceased to be the rare exception.
It’s clear the United States of 1963 and of 2013 are not the same. Even King may not have imagined that a black president would celebrate his speech 50 years later in Washington. From Supreme Court justices to winning Super Bowl coaches, African-Americans have broken, and continue to break, one glass ceiling after another.
Yet do we think a totally color-blind society is possible — and would we know what one looks like? Can the context of our racial history ever been totally forgotten? Should it be?
Two hundred years of slavery, followed by a hundred years of Jim Crow laws, then 50 years of sporadic progress have produced a distinct cultural divide. Though our racial tapestries have intertwined in many ways —in pop culture, food, language —there’s no denying that the experiences of white and black Americans remain different at many levels. And because of that, our views of the world have been molded by our backgrounds and experiences, sometimes in ways we’re not aware of.
We are reminded of this every time a new national “Rorschach test” emerges. In the early 1990s, the O.J. Simpson verdict sparked different reactions from white and black Americans. A very different ruling, but with similar split responses, was seen this summer in the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin tragedy and trial.
In each case, Americans processed the same information, but like the fable of the blind men and the elephant, came away with very different opinions, largely based on their divergent racial and cultural backgrounds.
It is thus hard to imagine ever reaching a society in which that context could be omitted without our varied personal histories to influence our views. And maybe that’s how it should be. It’s not vital that we agree on everything or see the world the same, as long as the same opportunities to succeed remain available to all, and that we talk and listen to each other as equals. ...