In an excerpt from Dr. Martin. Luther King Jr.’s “The Other America” speech in 1967, he made a bold claim that it was not just that racism existed, but that America as a whole was a racist country. “We must honestly see and admit that racism is still deeply rooted all over America…Every major institution you could point your finger to has been touched by institutional racism,” he said.
King stood before a majority-white audience at Stanford University to speak about poverty, racism, unemployment, segregation and police brutality that seeped into the Black community.
Despite the challenges, King remained optimistic about the nation’s future saying, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Fast forward to almost 55 years later. Progress has been made, but Black America continues to fight for against injustices on another generational level.
The Defender spoke with two educators, Dr. Karen Kossie-Chernyshev, Texas Southern University history professor, and Dr. Ronald E. Goodwin, associate professor of history at Prairie View A&M University, to gain insight on what Dr. King’s perspective would be of Black America today.
Defender: What are the similarities and differences between the Black American experience in Dr. King’s era versus today?
Dr. Kossie-Chernyshev: I was only 11 days old when Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. I was born in Houston’s historic Fifth ward at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for Negroes. It was a segregated hospital. I was born in 1963. We were able to see how society was impacted by Brown versus Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, and other pieces of legislation during that era. We were living the impact of Dr. King’s dream being fulfilled. So, over the course of my life, I’ve understood history as something that is progressive and that people can make positive change.
What we see now, in some instances, are stepping away from his progressive ideals. This generation is experiencing much like my generation, racial and economic inequality, police brutality and use technological advancements and social media as a tool to address these issues.
Dr. Ronald Goodwin: There has been a shift. We have a new generation of folks that are not accustomed to seeing such violence and confrontation like the Black community did during Dr. King’s time. The Civil Rights era was a dangerous time. We think, as a community, that some of these old attitudes and limitations are behind us, and my fear is that they’re not.
Defender: What are your thoughts behind the use of social media as a tool to address and expose social injustices in our communities?
A: I know we are at a point in our societal development where we have information at our fingertips, but a lot of the information on social media is not being vetted as accurate. We’ve got a generation that only wants to read 143 characters or less. We are getting snippets of a story and not taking the time to really understand what is happening. With social media, you can mobilize people quickly, but what are you mobilizing for? Not everyone who stands in the front of a crowd has that crowd’s best interest. There are a lot of young people with fire and passion, but if you’re not careful, someone can use your passion against you.
Defender: If Dr. King were alive, what would his thoughts be about Black America today?
Kossie-Chernyshev: I think he would take his time to remind Black America how far we’ve come — the idea that this generation doesn’t have to drink at a [water] fountain marked “Negro” or change your seat on a train because now you’ve crossed into segregated territory. You no longer are required to step aside to preserve your life in the name of white supremacy. So much has changed, yet there is so much we take for granted. Dr. King would certainly take us down memory lane to mention those small but very significant ways that inequality used to force second class citizenship on African-Americans. He would also remind us to go out and vote.
Goodwin: I know he would be satisfied with some of today’s progress. He would also say, don’t think for a moment that everything is what it seems. We still have a long way to go. Some folks still look at you and lock their doors for no other reason than the pigmentation of your skin.
Defender: What should Black youth do to continue to push Dr. King’s vision forward?
Kossie-Chernyshev: We have to encourage young people to really be engaged in meaningful activity. In recent years, there is a lack of character being promoted. Drug abuse, for example. What is recreation? If it’s something that you’re doing that will destroy your mind and body, you don’t need to be doing that. We can encourage them to improve their sense of social responsibility.
We are excelling in all professions. People of African descent are making important strides and contributions to society. I encourage youth to sit with their elders and talk to them. Talk to the oldest living relative in the family. What was life like for them? Being a parent is one of the most important jobs on earth because you are shaping the lives of the next generation. It starts with us. We have to make sure we are passing down life lessons to draw strength and knowledge from.
Goodwin: There is something to be said about being honorable. I think some folks today don’t understand their value. We have to understand our power and direct where we are investing it in. Reality TV, for example. I know it’s scripted and it makes money, but we still have a segment of our population in Montana or Wyoming that have no contact with Black women other than what they see on TV.
We need to care about how we present ourselves. There is a small segment of our population that makes money off of the Black community, and they influence how the Black community interacts with the broader community and how our community see itself. I think Dr. King would be very concerned about that.
Defender: Any last words for our readers?
Kossie-Chernyshev: I would say keep dreaming. A dream can extend over generations. Continue to seek wisdom and council. I have six degrees, but I don’t know everything. We have to continue to expand and be flexible as times change.