A light really has two functions: It illuminates, but it also casts shadows. Fifty years on, the light that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. cast across this country has done more to both illuminate us and to illustrate how very far this country has to go to reach the mountaintop.
Though it’s overshadowed in the popular imagination, King didn’t just devote himself to an end to segregation enshrined in law. He devoted himself to ending the segregation embedded throughout the fabric of American society.
In one of his final speeches, delivered merely three weeks before his assassination, King described how the prevalence of low-wage jobs worked to continue the cycle of segregation’s inequality, even as the laws of Jim Crow began to fall across the South.
King spends the speech, which he delivered outside Detroit, describing two Americas: one that is prosperous, safe, and full of opportunity and hope and another that is fearful, grinding and with a new obstacle around each corner.
The risk nowadays, since we live in the age of Obama, Oprah and Beyonce reigning supreme over the land, is that we begin to believe that everyone has emerged into the new, shiny America and the “other America” has faded away. We can be lulled into thinking that with the end of legislated Jim Crow in the South, we have finally achieved some hazy dream of a post-racial utopia, holding hands and singing lovely songs.
But it’s a mistake to shrink the achievements of King and the other civil rights leaders to changing some laws in the 1950s and 1960s. Doing that fundamentally ignores the scope of their vision and their genius — as well as the resistance they faced.
They didn’t just desegregate public transportation, spread the vote and speak encouraging words about universal brotherhood. They perceived that the image of God imprinted on every human soul was under attack in this country, not just in one way, but in many ways. They saw a systemic attack on the dignity and humanity of the people in their community, they named it and they rebelled against it.
And it’s this system that haunts us still, although the outward forms have changed. Legal segregation no longer exists in the United States, praise God, yet the effects of that time, and centuries of slavery before, linger like a toxin in our country. America’s people still stand divided.
In 1968, King was decrying an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent in the black community, which he considered unconscionably high. According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, as of 2013, black unemployment was 13.1 percent. (Meanwhile, white unemployment in 2013 was 6.5 percent.) Clearly, the recession is not over for everyone. Some people are still excluded from the fruits of this economic turnaround.
At the time of King’s speech, he also was pushing for an increase in the minimum wage. Across the country, the trap of low wages was keeping millions in poverty, not because they weren’t working but because they were, and still they couldn’t afford the basics of life.
King explained: “Most of the poverty-stricken people of America are persons who are working every day and they end up getting part-time wages for full-time work. So the vast majority of Negroes in America find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
King was citing the 1968 federal minimum wage, which was $1.60. In 2014 dollars, that’s equivalent to $10.94. Today the minimum wage in Missouri is $7.65 an hour, and let’s not even talk about Kansas. So still, many hardworking, dedicated workers in our country can have full-time and even beyond full-time employment and find themselves stranded outside the American dream.
King’s description of two Americas still resonates today, though we have come a long way towards his dream. But we will not get there until we confront the magnitude, the expanse of how far we have yet to go as a nation. Only when we fully name the distance that divides these two Americas, one from another, the chasm that separates one child of God from another and all the forces that keep us apart, will we be able to enter together into the promise of America as sisters and brothers together.
The Rev. Megan L. Castellan is associate rector and chaplain at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and Day School.