Had he lived Martin Luther King Jr would be 91 years old today. One can easily imagine the press of reporters that would surround him today clamoring for his candid assessment on the state of race relations and the progress or lack of progress to the fulfillment of his dream of a beloved community. This does not have to be simple speculation. Quotes from his final book Where Do We Go From Here? provide ample insight.
King’s final book begins with an assessment of racial progress one year after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed. With one-year hindsight he sees the signing of the act as the end of first phase in the civil rights revolution, a phase that he characterized as a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not equality. Against the backdrop of a failed venture to bring the civil rights movement and its tactics to the North in the city of Chicago, the riots in Watts and the growing Black Power movement, King concludes:
White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and the coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination…
The practical cost of change for the nation up to this point has been cheap. The limited reforms have been obtained at bargain rates. There are no expenses, and no taxes are required for Negroes to share lunch counters, libraries, parks, hotels and other facilities with whites… Even the more significant changes involved in voter registration required neither large monetary nor psychological sacrifice.
The real cost lies ahead. The stiffening of white resistance is a recognition of that fact. The discount education given Negroes will in the future have to be purchased at full price if quality education is to be realized. Jobs are harder and costlier to create than voting rolls. The eradication of slums housing millions is complex far beyond integrating buses and lunch counters.
We do not have to ask about King’s assessment. The haunting relevance of these words written over 50 years ago are clear enough. Whatever progress has been made is still only a small down payment on the cost of significant change. While commemorative events planned for this weekend are noteworthy. The most pressing and significant agenda item is to answer the question in our contemporary context Where do we go from here!