Had he lived, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be 86. As we prepare to celebrate his birthday we should be mindful that this year also commemorates two significant historic milestones in American history - the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the Selma March. Dr. King, in his spell-binding speech at the March on Washington, implored America and the world to create a society where no one is judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. However, fifty years after the speech, in the face of the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland, the growing global terrorism and violence being committed, particularly in Africa and Europe in the name of religion, coupled with the rise of global anti-Semitism, it begs the question: have we made significant progress?
As I reflect on this question I will admit that I have felt somewhat schizophrenic, as if I were a character in the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. On the one hand, I feel enormously exhilarated and grateful for all the historic and positive changes that have occurred over the last 50 years in this country - the election of America's first black president, and equality in employment, politics, public accommodations and civil rights. On the other hand, there still remains a wide chasm of disparities between blacks and whites - disparities in education, employment, wealth, health, representation in the board rooms and "C" suites of corporate America, and criminal justice with regards to imprisonment and sentencing.
Fifty years since Selma and the Voting Rights Act, the struggle for equality continues, however the equality spectrum has broadened to include gender, religious tolerance and sexual orientation. There are still parts of Dr. King's dream that remain unfulfilled, such as the preservation of the voting rights, reduction in gun violence, economic and health disparity and achieving equal protection under the law.
Against the backdrop of today's global turmoil, perhaps, a teachable moment from Ferguson is the interconnectivity of all of us - red, yellow, black, white and brown. It is clear now that every single American from every corner of the United States, across party lines and across generations, from every hamlet and city, has a stake in helping America fulfill Dr. King's dream of a country where each of us judged by the content of our character rather than by the color of our skin.
As our country becomes increasing culturally diverse, America is going to depend increasingly on the talents and abilities of non-whites and women to compete in the global marketplace. We should therefore heed Dr. King's wise words - "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
To that I would add that we must, as Dr. King knew and preached, do more than that. We must not take our freedom, we must not take the progress that has been made in the last 50 years, for granted. We must be ever mindful of the progress we have made, and we must be vigilant in demanding that everyone be treated equally. That every point of view, and every religious belief, be respected. And we must do this together.
In other words, we must not only live together, but work together, as brothers - and sisters - to make certain that no one's rights are taken away. That no one's opportunities are denied. That no one is persecuted or attacked for their ideas, beliefs and thoughts.
If we do not continue to work together, to preserve the progress we have made these last 50 years, we risk the possibility of losing ground.
We must speak out against the use of unnecessary force on those who are unarmed. We must continue to speak out for religious freedom. We must speak out against the weakening of the Voting Rights Act.
We must work together - all of us - of all races, backgrounds and religious beliefs. Dr. King, in his "I Have a Dream" speech delivered at the end of the March on Washington, reminded us that we must not distrust those who are different than us, for "their destiny is tied up with our destiny...their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom."
So, as we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the Selma March, we also must acknowledge that we are still not a harmonious nation - or world - a half-century after these two central events in the history of civil rights.
We have, to be sure, made progress. America, with all of its shortcomings, still remains the world's best example of pluralism, tolerance, inclusion and diversity.
But the struggle for freedom and tolerance for all continues. The words that Dr. King so eloquently uttered in his "I Have a Dream" speech still ring true. We must, he said, "always march ahead."
For there is still much to be done.
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