King's dream of equality for all not yet fulfilled
Educational, economic hurdles hinder many blacks 40 years after landmark speech
By CLAUDIA SMITH BRINSON
Changing laws is simpler than changing hearts.
On Aug. 28, 1963, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, "I have a dream today!" he wanted to change both.
Today, the laws are gone that kept blacks in the back of the bus, in separate neighborhoods and schools, on a path quite separate from
the American dream. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 provided equal access to housing, employment,
education, public accommodations and the voting booth.
But the human heart is another matter, some South Carolinians say.
As a measure of his dreams, King marked time from the Emancipation Proclamation, 100 years earlier. What do we find 40 years after he spoke?
Some South Carolinians say social change comes slowly and in a complicated way, as we move forward, then backward, then forward again,
struggling to open our hearts.
EDUCATION IS KEY TO BEATING RACISM
Noble P. Cooper was listening at home in Columbia.
"Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums
and ghettos of our northern cities knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed," King said.
Cooper had done just that. He served in the Air Force. He graduated from dental school, as did his father, as would his firstborn. He
came home, where only four black dentists worked, where white dentists wouldn't treat blacks. He came home because "I felt my place was here."
Cooper integrated the lunch counter at Rose's dime store. He raised money for the NAACP. He and Fred Jenkins integrated the S.C. Dental
Association after four years of effort.
"Nineteen sixty-three is not an end but a beginning," King said.
"The important thing about the entire speech is to state it is apropos today," says Carole Jenkins Cooper, who married Noble Cooper
upon her graduation from Fisk University.
"I do think the doors have opened for some of us, not all of us, and we are not free until the doors are open to all."
For four generations, education has been the key for the Cooper family. "I'm so fortunate because my parents and grandparents
established a relationship between education and beating racism," says Noble Cooper Jr. "We stress education."
"That's the only way," says the senior Cooper.
"We call it the ticket out," says the son.
But it's not a ticket available to everyone, despite King's dream. "I don't see or understand how South Carolina can ignore one-third
its population," says Noble P. Cooper. "There's no way for South Carolina to prosper unless we catch that neglected third by the hand and
pull them up."
Says Carole Jenkins Cooper, "It's been long enough for it to change, but the hearts of the people aren't in the right place."
"We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation," King said.
Checks continue to bounce, believes Traci Young Cooper, 2002 S.C. Teacher of the Year, married to Noble Cooper Jr. and mother of three.
She notes the good intentions behind No Child Left Behind won't be realized because the education legislation has not been fully funded.
And she cites the suit brought by poor, rural school districts, arguing this month in Manning that South Carolina doesn't properly fund
an adequate education.
"Go to Allendale, where there's vast unemployment, poor health care, poor schools. That leads you to the question of whether South
Carolina or America is doing what it needs to do.
"Although we have made great strides, the fundamental question remains: 'Have we reached that promised land?' and I would say, sadly,
'We have not.'"
'THE DISPARITIES REMAIN SUBSTANTIAL'
"... the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," King said.
Fewer teens are pregnant, fewer babies die, fewer children drop out of school compared to 40 years ago, says Baron Holmes, director of
S.C. Kids Count.
"But what the data do say over and over again is the disparities remain substantial. There has been some progress, but what's left to
address is significant."
The per-capita income of blacks is less than half that of whites in South Carolina. More than a third of black children scored in the
lowest quartile in language arts, almost half in the lowest quartile in math on the Palmetto Achievement Challenge Tests.
More than two-thirds of black children are born to single women; half live in single-parent homes. When King gave his speech, more than
three-fourths lived with both parents.
Holmes predicts poverty among black children will hit 40 percent again. "You can't achieve Martin Luther King's dreams if two-fifths of
the children are in poverty."
OUR DESTINIES ARE TIED
"This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," King said.
Anita G. Floyd was just 5, growing up in Chicago, when King made his speech. But, like most Americans, she heard snippets of the "I
have a dream" incantations; she read and re-read the speech.
She fixes on a phrase, "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," and says, "That seems what we've done. That seems the major disappointment.
"Why isn't there the urgency Dr. King put on us? Because we missed the point that our destinies are tied; we think working for justice
and charity is working for other people."
"And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone," King said.
Floyd is a research associate with USC's Institute for Families in Society; she specializes in housing and homelessness. So she sees
firsthand an attitude she despairs of: "We will use what we think is available to us to help 'those people' when we can."
Floyd adds, "I'm a glass half-full person. It would be one thing if we had really put our best effort forward, but we haven't, we
haven't. And we don't have a sense of loss for what we missed, not just for the individual but the collective."
FROM LEGAL TO ECONOMIC STRUGGLE
"This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness."
Diane Sumpter, founder and CEO of DESA Inc., watched the march on television. She was in the 11th grade and new to Columbia. Now she's
the grandmother of four.
"Martin Luther King took on the legal struggle, but the next element had to be economic, and that's the hurdle where we are now.
"You have the right to attend any college, but you can't get in without the SAT. You've got the right to live where you choose, but you
can't if you can't pay the mortgage.
"The legal rights are there, but there's so much more. It matters not if I pull myself up, if I don't pull up a circle, a neighborhood."
BACKWARD, FORWARD AT THE SAME TIME
"With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope," King said.
For several years, Tod Ewing held a "Martin Luther King reading season" for himself, beginning two months before and ending two months
after King's birthday.
Ewing, who was 10 when King spoke of his dreams, has offered diversity training through Hanna, Ewing and Associates since 1987. For
five years, he was an international counselor to Baha'i communities.
He continues to be moved by King's appeal to our higher nature. "The vision he tried to create is of oneness as a human family; he made
us feel our interdependence."
Ewing notes, "If we talk about the nature of change, I think we can be going backward and forward at the same time." So he points to
the February dedication of the Lewis G. Gregory Baha'i Museum in Charleston, the first there to celebrate a black. He points to Secretary
of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. He points to recent formal apologies for slavery made by religious groups.
Then, he points to America's jails and prisons, which hold more than 2 million. One of every six black men, compared to one in every 50
white men, has served time in prison, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.
"This should be a concern of all Americans," he says. "These are the citizens of our country."
'IT'S HARD TO BE DOERS OF THE WORD'
"There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, 'When will you be satisfied?'" King said.
The Rev. J. P. Neal Jr. knew King; Neal's father-in-law was a classmate. Neal says, "He was a dangerous dreamer; he wanted his dreams
Neal was 27 when King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He watched the march and speech on TV, then told his colleagues at
W.A. Perry Middle School, "I just hope this won't tickle our ears, prick our hearts and make us feel good, then we'll go back to doing nothing."
Today, Neal serves White Oak Baptist Church No. 2 in Ridgeway. The church was founded before the Civil War by his great-grandfather. So
Neal hears the "art of the delivery" and recognizes the traditions of black preaching when he listens to King's speech.
Neal believes civil rights legislation of the '60s offered progress but created a lull. And he believes something was lost, "a high
level of community, closer, interwoven," and a consequent "proprietary interest."
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but
by the content of their character," King said.
"I still feel hopeful," says Neal. "But I also feel a sense of cynicism; I feel disappointment. It's a mixed bag."
He adds, "We all love good words, but it's hard to be doers of the word."
©Copyright 2003, The State (SC, USA)
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