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50 years later, King's 'Dream' speech remains benchmark for progress

50 years later, King's 'Dream' speech remains benchmark for progress


With almost any discussion about race relations comes the inevitable question:

Has the dream been realized?

It’s a question in response to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, given 50 years ago today. Recent events, locally and nationally, have made the question even more pointed.

The release last week of school rankings show that districts serving primarily black students, such as Riverview Gardens, Normandy and St. Louis, are among the lowest in Missouri. In June, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, effectively stating that blacks no longer face barriers when casting ballots in states with a history of discrimination.

There was the Trayvon Martin case earlier this summer, which touched off a series of debates about race relations and the criminal justice system. And there was the rodeo clown at the Missouri State Fair, who wore a President Barack Obama mask while the announcer taunted him.

The Post-Dispatch asked African-Americans what King’s speech means to them today and how it has shaped their lives. The responses were clear:

Progress has been made, but King would not be satisfied; instead, he would reiterate his remarks from Aug. 28, 1963: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Leonard Blair Jr.

18, south St. Louis. Senior at Metro Academic and Classical High School

Blair turned 18 on Saturday, as thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King’s speech. Another event led by Obama will be held today.

   Leonard Blair Jr.

Blair knows King’s leadership in the civil rights movement helped put into place laws that outlawed discrimination against blacks long before he was born. But he also knows that blacks continue to be treated differently.

When he goes to a store in the mall, he said, the clerks “focus on me.” His parents have discouraged him from piling into the car with his friends, worried they will be pulled over by police.

And ever since the Trayvon Martin verdict, Blair thinks about what he wears before leaving the house, worried that a hoodie could present him as a threatening figure.

His hope is that the gatherings in Washington to remember King and his famous speech bring an awareness to ongoing disparities today, especially in education.

After classes each day at Metro, he heads back to his south St. Louis neighborhood, where he plays varsity football for Roosevelt High School and is team captain. It’s where he would attend classes if he had not been accepted into Metro, a magnet school.

So many of the young black men he plays with see little future.

“Society told them they are not going to be anything,” Blair said. “Some black people have accepted it as a way of life.”

He sees his role as leader of the football team an opportunity to change that mindset. He wants to expand the leadership role after school, entering the ministry, just like King did.

“That would be my dream today. I don’t think you can start to change things if you don’t understand the people you’re working with,” Blair said.

Stefanie Williams

45, Florissant. Human resources manager

Williams grew up in Shelbyville, Ky., “a very small, racist town,” she said. Before moving to St. Louis 23 years ago, she lived in Salt Lake City.

   Stefanie Williams
   Williams in Washington

When she came here with her then-husband, Williams at least knew there would be more people who looked like her.

She had hoped that 50 years after King’s speech, her race would not be what defined her. But in March, while in a lobby bathroom of a Central West End hotel, a white attendant asked her why she was in the bathroom and how long she planned to be there. Other women in the bathroom, all white, were not questioned by the employee.

Williams filed a complaint with the hotel, which conducted an investigation. A hotel spokesman sent her a letter stating “our findings concluded that the service you received did not meet the high standards of customer service” and “corrective actions are being taken to address the less than optimal customer service that you experienced.”

Williams said all she wanted was an apology from the attendant, something she never got.

Before boarding a bus to attend last Saturday’s march in Washington, Williams said she was excited to be a part of the commemoration, but did not consider it a celebration.

“Racism is so deeply rooted, I don’t think it’s ever going to go away,” Williams said. She borrowed a line from a speech King gave in St. Louis on March 22,1964:

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

Lew Moye

70, Penrose neighborhood. President of St. Louis chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists

Moye took four of his grandchildren with him to Saturday’s march in Washington. The longtime union activist said this country’s next generation should participate in events marking significant historic moments.

   Lew Moye
   Moye, with family and friends

“It’s important to try to educate our kids around these events,” Moye said. “A lot of the things that were issues of the march 50 years ago are still issues today.”

Namely jobs, he said. Today’s unemployment rate is twice as high for blacks as it is for whites. There remain great disparities in poverty rates, household incomes and education levels.

“It’s an anniversary, but to me its a continuation of a fight for jobs, justice and freedom,” Moye said.

His granddaughter, Kaci Wiley, 14, seemed perplexed by the similarity of the messages at marches 50 years apart.

“She asked me: ‘What’s so difficult about making changes? Doing the right thing? Like if there are injustices, what’s so difficult about stopping that?’ I guess (the children) don’t know the degree of obstacles and how tough it is to bring about change. I guess they are innocent.”

Moye said the march and rally on Saturday energized the crowd. Hopefully that spirit will be carried back to communities throughout the country, including St. Louis, he said.

“I’m optimistic about it,” Moye said. “I think we’re going to see more action.”

Camille Casmier

17, Central West End. Senior at Metro Academic and Classical High School

One of the most irksome questions Camille gets is, “What are you?”

   Camille Casmier

What people want to know is her race. She identifies as black, not mixed race or biracial. Those terms have replaced “mulatto,” now widely considered derogatory because of its association with slavery. To Camille, putting her in the “other” column waters down her identity.

But having a black father and a white mother has Camille caught up in race discussions more often than she would like.

Categorizing people can lead to marginalizing them. And that’s not where we should be in 2013, she said. It’s great that the anniversary of the “Dream” speech has the country talking about race and the progress since then, Camille said.

If not for civil rights leaders such as King, she said, she would not be able to attend a school such as Metro, and her parents would not have been able to marry.

But she is not confident the passion that came from the march 50 years ago is here today. Those passionate efforts now seem to be in the battles for gay and immigrant rights — the new civil rights fights.

But Camille believes a fight for one is a fight for all, as King said in a letter he wrote in 1963 from the Birmingham, Ala., jail.

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

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