EDITORIAL: MLK Day finds progress stalled

York Dispatch Editorial Board

As the nation pauses today to reflect on the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., it does so amid stubbornly stalled progress on initiatives King dedicated — and, ultimately, gave — his life to.

From all-out assaults on voting rights to inequities in education and housing to new spasms of white-nationalist nonsense, the America entering the third decade of the 21st century is not so far removed from that embroiled in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

This is astonishing, given the momentum of 50 years ago. The gains secured during the mid-1960s were as overarching as they were overdue. 

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Through largely nonviolent efforts such as the Freedom Rides, the Birmingham campaign and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King and like-minded legions made civil rights the No. 1 domestic issue of the era. Achievements included the twin peaks of the era — the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — as well as the desegregation of public colleges and interstate travel.

This progress came in the face of opposition that was relentless, violent and often deadly: The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the beating of demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Selma to Birmingham march across Alabama, the police dogs and water cannon unleashed by the Bull Connors of the South.

FILE - In this May 17, 1967 file photo, Dr. Martin Luther King speaks at the University of California administration building in Berkeley, Calif. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. asked Americans, "Where do we go from here?" His warning of chaos or community squarely confronted racism, and marked a shift from his emphasis on nonviolence to a demand for full economic and political equality. Younger generations of black activists say they prefer the pointed, more forceful King to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning pacifist who preached love over hate.   (AP Photo, File)

These headline-grabbing atrocities were but the tip of a mountain of everyday aggression against communities of color — insults, threats, arrests, beatings, tortures and murders — too often with the complicity of local law enforcement.

This was the wall of oppression King fought. This was the entrenched, hate-filled resistance he and the movement fought to overcome.

But to paraphrase the gospel hymn that became a protest anthem, they did overcome. Or, at least, were in the process of overcoming when King was slain by an assassin’s bullet in April 1968.

It is too much to say the civil rights movement lost momentum following King’s slaying. After all, with the similarly violent deaths of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, President John Kennedy and his brother Robert Kennedy — all within five years — America itself seemed to be losing its momentum.

Besides, rights attained are not always rights enjoyed. Public schools, for example, were still not integrated at the time of King’s death, 14 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision order them so. (In fact, they remain largely segregated to this day.) And those landmark civil rights measures of 1964-65 sought to secure rights that were supposedly granted 100 years earlier in the 14th and 15th Amendments.

For all of the hope and progress of the 1960s, a report commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson painted a stark picture:

“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, informally known as the Kerner Commission, reported in 1968. The findings blamed poverty and institutional racism.

Visitors to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington stop to photograph the quotes etched into the memorial's back wall while it snows in the Nation's Capital, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. The civil rights leader's birthday is celebrated as a federal holiday Monday. (AP Photo/J. David Ake)

More than 50 years later, too little has changed. Voter suppression efforts (which flared in 2010, following record turnout by African American voters in the 2008 presidential election) seek to muffle voices of color. And the National Urban League’s annual Equality Index, which measures how African Americans and Hispanics are doing compared to white Americans, finds both groups woefully behind in terms of economics, health, education and social justice. 

King would not be pleased. But he would not be discouraged. Time and again during his too-short life, he courageously rallied the oppressed against the oppressors. “Out of a mountain of despair,” he preached during his “I Have a Dream” speech, “a stone of hope.”

We honor King when we seek out those stones and stack them, one by one, to build a fairer, kinder, more just society.

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on MLK Day, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)