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30 years after King: Still seeking the 'promised land'

Bruce Morton

By Bruce Morton
CNN National Correspondent

In this story: April 3, 1998
Web posted at: 7:15 a.m. EST (1215 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In the beginning, it was dangerous. You could get killed, and people did. A housewife named Viola Liuzzo. A minister named James Reeb.

It was dangerous, but at least it was simple. You saw the signs, "White" and "Colored," saw the blacks in the back of the bus, saw Alabama Gov. George Wallace shouting, "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."

And if you were Martin Luther King Jr. or one of the men and women, black and white, who marched with him, you knew that all that was wrong.

Taking his stand 'for that which is true'

King knew the risks. Andrew Young, who marched with the civil rights leader, remembers King had a cross-shaped scar on his chest from being stabbed with a letter opener at age 28. He used to joke that he'd see his tombstone every morning when he went to shave. King joked about death, Young remembers, and preached about it.

"A man dies," King said, "when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.

King

"So we're going to stand up right here in Alabama ... amid the billy clubs ... amid the tear gas ... letting the world know that we are determined to be free."

King could preach. But his genius was that he stood up non-violently, so that the violence America saw on the news was white violence.

Americans saw white cops clubbing peaceful marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, saw Bull Connor and his police dogs attacking demonstrators in Birmingham, saw the bodies of four little black girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing.

And finally, America had seen enough. Martin Luther King and those who marched with him changed the nation.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act ended legal segregation. The 1965 Voting Rights Act gave black Americans in the South the power of the vote.

So, had King won?

Not really, because by the time the walls of segregation tumbled down, King had moved on to other issues. The Vietnam War meant a split with President Lyndon Johnson, who had hammered Congress into passing the civil rights bills.

Another King battle left unfinished

King's other issue, by the time he died, was poverty. He planned a Poor Peoples' March on Washington.

"We're getting ready," he told a crowd in Mississippi, "to deal with the economic issue. We're getting ready to demand jobs and income. We're tired of working full-time jobs for part-time income."

The 1960s radicalized King, but the country hadn't changed with him. It wasn't ready for redistribution of national wealth. And blacks were rioting in burning cities by then, no longer united in the discipline of non-violence.

King wondered what to do, Young says. He had offers to preach and to teach.

King's tomb

But, Young says, "he had to find a way to raise the question of poverty in America, and so he was down in Memphis with the garbage workers when he could have been pastoring (Nelson) Rockefeller's church in New York."

King went to Memphis and died there, assassinated on April 4, 1968.

"Like anybody," King said in the last speech he ever gave, "I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will, and He's allowed me to go up this mountain, and I've looked over and I've seen the promised land."

... the more things stay the same

But 30 years later, it is still that -- a promised land, not a real one.

Race relations are better, but not perfect -- just ask Rodney King or Reginald Denny. But Young is probably right when he says poverty, black and white, is the breeding ground of most racial hatred now.

We are debating, these days, whether we need things such as minority quotas in universities. But as former Education Secretary William Bennett points out, if we had a level playing field -- if every American went to good schools -- we wouldn't be arguing about quotas because we wouldn't need them.

All you have to do is walk through any slum -- rural or urban, black or white -- to see that the playing field is badly tilted, that some children go to very bad schools indeed.

A 1997 study shows the median income of black Americans is about 60 percent of whites' -- $15,630 to $25,384. But the median net worth of black Americans is just 8 percent of whites' -- $3,700 to $43,800.

And an Education Department study from 1992 shows white children scoring better than black children in reading, math, and science at virtually all ages.

What King might say now

Dr. King was 39 when he died. He would be 69 if he had lived and would be telling us, no doubt forcefully, about our unsolved problems of poverty.

Nobody, Young thinks, has picked up that banner. Nobody talks about it now. And to be fair, it isn't easy or cheap to fix social ills. If there were a $5 cure for poverty, we'd use it.

But 30 years after King, there isn't one -- which doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

"Keep your eye on the prize," the marchers used to say. "Keep on."

Toward a vision, perhaps, of what poet Langston Hughes called "America, the land that never was, and yet must be."

 
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