Because Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to fighting for civil rights and justice for America's black victims of de jure and de facto discrimination, blacks owe him more than parades, speeches and concerts. We should use the King holiday to commit ourselves to living up to his dreams and efforts.
If we are ever to enjoy the full benefits of the history-changing civil rights legislation passed during King's lifetime and afterward, we need to start holding up our end of the bargain. To enjoy these hard-earned benefits, we must be prepared to enjoy them. We must become introspective and accept responsibility for our lives as individuals. We must commit ourselves to serving our neighbors and improving our communities.
Education, as King knew, is essential for success in most areas of American life. Merely having the right to attend the nation's public schools is not enough. Hundreds of thousands of black children still lag behind their white and Asian classmates academically. Too many black students, especially males, are disruptive and wind up suspended or expelled. Legions simply drop out.
My detractors will accuse me of being insensitive, of letting the nation's school boards, principals and teachers off the hook. Not so. While the "system" always can do more for students, many black adults responsible for our children fail to hold up their end of the bargain. Teachers are most effective when students come to class prepared to learn. Being prepared to learn includes having a rested and nourished body, respect for authority and a positive attitude.
I will not recite the abysmal scores of our students on the ACT and SAT college entrances exams. Simply stated, we should be as concerned about the scores as we were 20 years ago. Our college graduation rates should scare us to death. We must commit ourselves to significantly raising these numbers if we want to give our children successful futures in a world where meritocracy matters more and more.
King Day also is the ideal time to commit ourselves to a serious effort to begin reversing the soaring incarceration rates of blacks in the nation's jails and prisons, a phenomenon some researchers trace to our lack of education. The Nation of Islam aptly refers to our high incarceration rates as "America's new slavery."
A 2008 Pew Center on the States report found that 1.6 million inmates were in U.S. prisons. One in 9 black men ages 20 to 34 was behind bars, compared with 1 in 30 for other men in the same age group. For black women ages 35 to 39, the number is 1 in 100, compared with 1 in 355 for white women in the same age group.
We urgently need to commit ourselves to rebuilding the two-parent family to lower the high number of black children born out of wedlock. Studies find that between 70 percent and 80 percent of black children are born to single mothers, many of them teenagers. Some black neighborhoods do not have any two-parent families. These trends must be reversed.
We also need to focus on our physical health. King Day is an excellent time to start. Life expectancy has steadily increased for whites and blacks since 1970, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Between 1970 and 2006, white males' life expectancy increased from 68.0 to 75.7 years (11.3 percent), while white females' life expectancy increased from 75.6 to 80.6 years (6.6 percent). At the same time, life expectancy of black males increased from 60.0 to 69.7 years (16.2 percent), while life expectancy increased from 68.3 to 76.5 years for (11.7 percent) for black females.
Improved life expectancy for blacks, however, is tempered by some negative measures, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association: "The gap has narrowed in the past 10 years in part because of declining death rates from AIDS-related complications, homicide, accidental injury and other factors."
Were King alive, he would urge blacks to change their saving habits. Whether we are considering income, home ownership, household wealth or investing, the stark economic divide between whites and African-Americans persists.
Unfortunately, as a Pew Research Center survey found, euphoria over President Barack Obama's election and a romantic longing for a "postracial" America have caused a majority of blacks to believe that the standard-of-living gap between whites and blacks has narrowed when, in fact, it has not. Although such a belief makes some of us feel good, it does not alter reality.
In the same unrealistic way, if our parades, speeches and concerts are not accompanied by earnest, long-term commitments to self-improvement and personal sacrifice for a better future, King Day is virtually meaningless.
The best way to honor King is to hold up our end of the bargain.