LEWIS W. DIUGUID

The complacency seen by King hasn’t gone away

Updated: 2013-04-15T00:00:26Z

By LEWIS W. DIUGUID

The Kansas City Star

Fifty years ago Tuesday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” addressed to those who called civil rights protests “unwise and untimely.”

Just months later, on Aug. 28, King shook the foundation of America’s racial hatred and complacency with his “I Have A Dream” speech. Each was a seminal civil rights event, leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other landmark laws.

King’s powerful words and the actions of people who marched in the streets, staged sit-ins and went to jail to push America to live up to its constitutional ideals benefited everyone. Especially black baby boom children. Adult sacrifices pried open doors to equality, enabling African-Americans’ talents to be seen and leading them to rise today to unimagined heights.

Here in the heartland, we have abundant evidence of such progress. A black U.S. congressman represents a majority white district. Blacks serve as our town’s chief of police, mayor and university chancellor.

They’re on the Missouri Court of Appeals and hold the presidency of the Kansas City Art Institute. They are CEO of Truman Medical Center and lead a major law firm.

In 1963, in a very different America, executive positions for African-Americans in the country’s industries and institutions were unthinkable. Yet because King and others dared to dream, attaining such pinnacles became possible for the descendants of slaves.

From now through Aug. 26 — two days before the 50th anniversary of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, this column will feature interviews with African-American executives.

Their accomplishments will be chronicled. And they also will share their visions for the next 50 years for African-Americans and detail the roadblocks in the way.

The black executives will explain how the U.S. under the leadership of its first African-American president working in tandem with a diversity of others can finally achieve King’s dream of everyone being judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

Although a few African-Americans have enjoyed great success today, it’s clear from King’s writings that a disproportionate number of blacks remain chained by inequalities. They still face segregation, poor health care, deplorable education, unsafe communities and crushing poverty.

“We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote from the Birmingham Jail. “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.”

Clearly, the complacency King described in his letter still exists, and it includes blacks.

Some blacks are middle class “with a degree of academic and economic security” profiting from the golden side of the socioeconomic fence and “insensitive to the problems of the masses.” Other complacent blacks are so “drained of self-respect and a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that they have adjusted to segregation. ...”

Another community of blacks that King described remain a concern today.

They are “one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence.”

King added that this group “is made up of people who have lost faith in America.”

Just as King said, it’s time to “remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” What the heirs of the civil rights movement will offer is a needed conversation that is too often not heard today. Words from the heartland can help guide the nation to that better America King envisioned.

From the Birmingham Jail King wrote: “Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all of their scintillating beauty.”

We’re still waiting, still hoping.

To reach Lewis W. Diuguid, call 816-234-4723 or send email to ldiuguid@kcstar.com.

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