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On my radio show Monday morning, I continued a Martin Luther King Day tradition of playing audio of Dr. King. In the past, I have aired some of his extraordinary speeches including: “I Have a Dream,” “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and “Beyond Vietnam.”
Monday, though, I replayed Dr. King’s March 28, 1965 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” The interview was conducted just after the third Selma to Montgomery march concluded, but demonstrations were continuing in Alabama where state troopers, police, and pro-segregationists were busy clubbing, gassing, and turning fire hoses against peaceful protesters. At least three civil rights activists were murdered.
When asked what the demonstrators wanted, Dr. King responded: 1) an end to the police violence, 2) a guarantee that black Alabamans would be permitted to vote, and 3) a concerted state response to black poverty. In the aftermath of Selma to Montgomery, President Johnson pushed through Congress the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For the first time since Reconstruction, southern blacks could vote in numbers proportionate to their actual population. Absent the civil rights movement, Barack Obama’s presidency would not have happened. Yet, some of the gains since 1965 are fragile and others more apparent than real. Forty-eight years later, Dr. King’s dream of a color-blind poverty-free nation remains a dream.
With respect to police violence against African-Americans, our country seems to have progressed. I am simply unaware of any recent police actions that approximate what happened in 1965 when entire forces were deployed against justice seekers. Still, there is much to be concerned about.
Police brutality, including assaults, beatings, and shootings of African-Americans, remains endemic. Rogue Sheriffs like Joe Arpaio in Arizona admit targeting Latinos. In contrast to the ’60s, there is no widespread public outcry against such abuses.
The official poverty rate dropped by 50 percent from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, when due to the government programs, collectively called the war in poverty, and a booming economy, the percentage of poor Americans declined from 22.5 percent to 11.2 percent in 1974. Since then, the total number of impoverished has risen steadily, while the percentage has moved up and down.
It is at a 40-year high of more than 15 percent. Over 20 percent of America’s children live in poverty and nearly 30 percent of black people are officially considered poor. The rapid rise in income inequality that began first with Reagan’s tax cuts for the rich and later his tax hikes on middle-income earners has left tens of millions of Americans behind, with blacks still at the back of the bus.
In voting rights, it would appear that Dr. King’s legacy is most secure. After all, we just reelected our nation’s first African-American president. Doesn’t this prove that we’ve come a long way? Barack Obama’s victory is indeed meaningful, but it may mean less than we might hope. In the Senate today, there are no elected blacks, although South Carolina Republican Tim Scott was just appointed to replace Jim DeMint.
Moreover, Republicans seem determined to use anti-democratic means to reduce the chance that African-American voters will be able to decide the presidency.
Pennsylvania Republicans who currently hold both legislative houses and the governor’s mansion in the Keystone State propose splitting the electoral votes based on proportion of the popular vote received. Such a system would be fine if employed in all states. But predictably, Republicans are pushing to change the way electors are allocated only in those states which they control and which President Obama won. The result would be that while the Republican candidate would pick up electors in states like Ohio, Florida, and Michigan, as well as Pennsylvania, there would be no corresponding shift of electoral votes to the Democrats in Texas, Arizona, or North Carolina.
In recent presidential elections, the more progressive Democratic candidate has struggled to win even 40 percent of the white vote, even though the ebbing economic tide resulting from conservative policies has lowered most boats. America’s changing demographics with ever more Hispanic and Asian voters, not changed hearts and minds, are why desperate Republicans are attempting to rewrite laws to enable their less popular candidates to sit in the oval office.
In August 1963, 17 months before Alabama erupted into violence, Martin Luther King praised his “white brothers [and sisters who] realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.” Sadly, those of us who realize this remain a minority.
Hal Ginsberg is the owner of KRXA 540 AM radio on which he has a morning show every weekday from 6-9 a.m.
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