Fifty years ago this week, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered perhaps the greatest speech of the 20th century. President Barack Obama will stand near the same spot Wednesday and honor the anniversary by addressing similar themes of unequal treatment and racial divides, issues this nation still wrestles with today. Tremendous progress has been made between the eras of the March on Washington and the nation's first black president, but King's dream of equality has yet to be fully realized.
King's speech lasted less than 20 minutes. The most memorable lines were not part of the written text, and the speech did not receive lasting acclaim until after the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968. Yet it remains a defining moment in American history, and the urgency of its plea for freedom for all still resonates even as circumstances have changed.
In 1963 America, most African-Americans still could not exercise the right to vote or send their children to integrated public schools. King spoke that day of limited mobility because blacks could not find hotel accommodations, of routine police brutality and of "For Whites Only" signs. In St. Petersburg, it had been only a year since the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets first stayed in integrated hotels during spring training.
Florida and the nation have made great strides since then, and younger generations of all races cannot imagine such institutionalized racism sanctioned by law or common custom. The overt discriminatory barriers that King cited have since been eliminated by federal and state law as well as local ordinances. Diversity in race, gender and sexual orientation is less feared and more valued as a strength. But broader issues of inequality that King alluded to a half-century ago have yet to be overcome.
The Great Recession hit black Americans particularly hard, and the difference in unemployment rates between white and black workers has not narrowed in 50 years. Today's unemployment rate is 6.6 percent for whites but 12.6 percent for blacks. The income gap between white and black families has widened, and the achievement gap between white and black students remains stubborn.
Unlike 1963, black Floridians now hold seats in Congress and the Legislature. Yet state policies in a number of areas have a disproportionate impact on black residents. Defendants who invoke the "stand your ground" law to avoid prosecution are more likely to go free if the victim is black. Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature refuse to embrace the Affordable Care Act or expand Medicaid — and black Floridians are less likely than white residents to have health coverage. The governor intends to again purge the voter rolls, and that could have a disproportionate impact on minorities and low-income residents if not carefully carried out.
The 50th anniversary of King's speech is a moment to celebrate his life's work and reflect on the nation's progress toward racial equality. It is also a time to recognize the work left to be done and to recommit to the ideals he so passionately embraced.