Martin Luther King Jr. saw better days ahead
In the last speech he gave before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. talked about having been to the mountaintop and having seen the promised land, a land where men were free and equal.
He talked about what an exciting time it was in the 1950s and '60s, when he and others challenged the institutions that had made black men and women and children second-class citizens.
What came to be known as his mountaintop speech ended on a note of optimism, with his prediction that "as a people we will get to the promised land."
Now, nearly 39 years since his assassination and more than two decades after the nation recognized him with the national holiday we mark today, Martin Luther King Jr. would be hard pressed to see a promised land in many of the nation's cities, Youngstown among them.
In that last speech, delivered April 3, 1968, at the Masonic Temple in Memphis, Tenn., where King had been giving his support to the city's striking sanitation workers, King seemed to believe that the worst was over.
He talked about the days when civil rights protesters would be set upon by dogs, knocked to the ground by fire hoses and thrown into crowded jails only because they had the strength and pride to demand equal treatment. Having lived through that, having seen the Supreme Court of the United States order the desegregation of the nation's schools and having seen Congress pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, King had reason to believe that the worst was over.
There is no doubt that much of the work Dr. King did resulted in real and lasting changes in the way America and Americans view race.
But we are still far from the promised land that King thought was just over the horizon.
On the legal front, the very principles established by Brown vs. Board of Education just over 50 years ago are now being turned upside down and there is a very real possibility that the Roberts Court will effectively overturn the Warren Court's finding that separate is inherently unequal.
But even more troubling, minority students today, regardless of the amount of money states and local school districts are willing to spend on schools, continue to graduate at far smaller percentages than white students.
And even more horrifying, in many cities, Youngstown among them, young black men are killing other young black men at frighteningly high rates.
In the final sentences of his final speech, Martin Luther King Jr. told his audience: "I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
In the aftermath of King's assassination, those words sounded prophetic. Today, they sound more like a tragically fading dream.