• From dream to action
    August 25,2013
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    AP File Photo

    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have A Dream” speech to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, a half-century ago this week.
    On Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall to a crowd of 250,000 people. Fifty years have passed since that historic march and speech. It seems an appropriate time to look back and assess our progress as a society towards fulfilling that dream.

    The Vermont Human Rights Commission has been in existence for 25 years. Its mission is to increase awareness of civil and human rights and to investigate and enforce anti-discrimination laws. I intended to write an article of celebration for this momentous event, but unfortunately celebration is premature.

    As Dr. King noted in his speech: “One hundred years later [after the end of slavery], we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free … the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination … the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity … [and] the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”

    While it is true that progress has been made in the last 50 years, the statements Dr. King made in his speech are as true today as they were in 1963. New England contains eight of the 10 most segregated cities in the nation. From 2007-2010 black family wealth fell 31 percent compared to 11 percent for whites. Average household income for blacks is $33,000, and for whites it is $50,000. The unemployment rate for blacks is 13.7 percent compared to 6.6 percent for whites, and 40 percent of black children are growing up in poverty. Add to this that of the 2.3 million people in prison, 1 million are black. In our own state, despite the fact that blacks make up a scant 1.1 percent of the population, they represent 10 percent of our prison population. The recent ACLU study (2013) showed disproportionate arrest rates for blacks nationwide and in Vermont for possession of marijuana, despite equal usage.

    The Trayvon Martin case illustrates the continuing exile young black men experience in our country. As a complainant recently lamented in declining to pursue a claim of racial discrimination, “Finally if a young man can be gunned down holding a bag a Skittles, there is no justice for blacks in this country.”

    By the year 2045, the United States will be a nation where minorities are the majority. This demographic change has broad implications given the growing recognition of the correlation between negative health indicators and patterns of segregation and poverty. Sustained exposure to highly distressed neighborhoods reduces a child’s odds of high school graduation by at least 60 percent. Disparities in access to community assets negatively impact educational and economic outcomes at a time when diversity in business, higher education, and elsewhere will be essential to continued economic growth.

    But just as Dr. King did 50 years ago, I urge you to take this lack of significant progress not as a cause for despair and defeat but as a call to action. We, as a society, must find concrete ways to achieve the principle of equality our nation was built on. On the 100th anniversary of this march, let it be said that we did what was necessary to achieve equality and we did it forthwith, for we cannot afford to wait another day.

    “I say to you today, my friends … I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’” That’s what Dr. King said on Aug. 28, 1963.

    I have the same dream. But dreaming is no longer enough. It is time to take action. What will you do today and tomorrow to make a difference?

    Karen Richards is executive director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission.
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