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Still Living in “The Other America”

Seeking to write something poignant about him as we celebrate the King holiday always pales in comparison to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s own eloquent words and clear-eyed analysis of the state of racial injustice in America. And though his words were written over fifty years ago, the fact that they are still relevant — and what’s worse — could have been written a week ago, always pains those who study his texts. In this piece, his words splice with our contemporary reality and guide us in our continued quest for the “beautiful symphony of brotherhood” he foretold in the 1960s.

In multiple ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has aligned with our latest reckoning with racism (an epidemic in America) to show us how starkly different the experience of America continues to be, depending on your reality. Over the last two years, both COVID-19 and racism revealed the gaps, sentiments and oversights some in this country live with daily, a reality that Dr. King unpacked in 1967.

  • In a sense, the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to other children. Little children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority, farming every day in their little mental skies. And as we look at this other America, we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams. – “The Other America” speech at Stanford University, May 1967

The difficulties those disparate views of America produce have been deepened by the impacts of COVID-19 and racism, and let’s be honest, we haven’t defined a collective path to recovery or restoration yet. Again, Dr. King’s words remind us of how these difficulties show up.

  • But we must see that the struggle today is much more difficult. It’s more difficult today because we are struggling now for genuine equality, and it’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good, solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine quality integrated education a reality. – “The Other America” speech at Stanford University, May 1967

The “struggle today” remains much more difficult, still. During Dr. King’s lifetime, racism was defined by the violence and actions of white supremacists, wearing white capes and hoods, burning crosses and embracing swastikas. Once those images and actions appeared less often, some resolved that racism had been conquered, leaving behind only a few outliers as its perpetrators. But racism isn’t about individual acts of prejudice. Even in 1967, Dr. King knew better than to celebrate the death of racism.

  • Now the other thing that we’ve got to come to see now, that many others didn’t see too well during the last 10 years, and that is that racism is still alive in American society, and much more widespread than we realize. And we must see racism for what it is…What I’m trying to get across is that our nation has constantly taken a positive step forward on the question of racial justice and racial equality. But over and over again, at the same time, it made certain backwards steps. – “The Other America” speech at Stanford University, May 1967

Dr. King’s assessment of backwards steps applies to voting rights, too. The 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870 to grant African-American men the right to vote. Nearly a century later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 offered a way to get around the state and local level barriers that prevented African Americans from exercising their 15th Amendment right. That act has been amended and reauthorized five times. Today, Congress is weighing two voting bills, largely to reaffirm voting rights first ratified 150 years ago.

A lesson to be learned from this voting rights example is one that is central to Dr. King’s message from 55 years ago that still applies today. Progress is always to be celebrated, but the struggle doesn’t end. We can never give up on our efforts for justice; until we live in one America, there will be work to do.

  • Now, let me say, finally, that we have difficult days ahead. But I haven’t despair. Somehow, I maintain hope in spite of hope, and I’ve talked about the difficulties and how hard the problems will be, as we tackle them. But I want to close by saying this afternoon that I still have faith in the future. And I still believe that these problems can be solved. And so I will not join anyone who will say that we still can’t develop a coalition of conscience. – “The Other America” speech at Stanford University, May 1967

Blog by Nataki Gregory, Ed.D., CEO of CT3 Education

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