Dr. King, a Monumental Man

On August 28, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's monument will be officially unveiled on the Mall in Washington. This date was selected to remind the world that forty-eight years earlier, Dr. King delivered his inspirational "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

August 28 has a special significance to black people for an additional reason. It marks the day in 1955 that fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Money, Mississippi, for having whistled at a white woman.

The two events may be coincidental, but there is little doubt that it was Emmett's "lynching" that energized the modern Civil Rights Movement, and strengthened Dr. King's determination to change the course of American history.

I had the extraordinary privilege to know Dr. King. For the last two years of his life, he was my mentor and friend. As his "student," I was not fully convinced that his campaign of non-violence would succeed. I wanted to fight fire with fire, to secure my right to equal opportunity, protection and treatment under the law "by all means necessary."

Patiently, much like a father counseling his rebellious daughter, Dr. King persuaded me of the need to reach out and touch the hearts and minds, not just of white people or black people, but also of the good people of America. I was able to see how his raw courage and passionate voice was able to "bend the arc of history towards justice."

"Towards" is the operative word for me, because like Dr. King, we have not yet arrived in the Promised Land. Yes, there's a black man in the White House. Barack Obama is there, not as a slave or servant, but as President of the United States. But one man, however lofty his title, doesn't erase the persistence of racism in America and its grim consequences.

The unemployment and infant mortality rates for black people are nearly double that of whites. The net worth of whites is five times higher than that of blacks. While making up roughly thirteen percent of the nation's population, blacks constitute nearly fifty percent of the prison population. Blacks are arrested far more than whites for allegations of wrongdoing and receive patently more severe prison sentences for the commission of similar crimes. Our drug laws, and the penalties imposed for breaking them, are far more punitive for blacks than they are for whites. I'll pass over how many unarmed black men are shot accidentally or with intent by police compared to their white counterparts.

The notion that we have arrived at a post-racial, colorblind moment in our history is a pleasant thought, but a fictitious one. It is, in fact, a canard. As Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her brilliant book, The New Jim Crow, the mass incarceration of African-American men today is but the reinstitution of a racial caste system under the rubric of being "tough on crime." What is needed is a get-tough policy on those who promote racial and ethnic hatred, and who support policies that discriminate against the poorest and the most disadvantaged among us. If Dr. King were alive today, I'm certain this is the message that he'd deliver to the American people.

As the day of his monument's unveiling has approached, I find myself reflecting on the significance of Dr. King's presence on the historic strip of land that runs from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. I'm anxious to see and touch the sculpture that has been so controversial from its conception to completion. Looking at it from a distance, I'm not sure it truly captures the range and depth of his character and humanity. But I like the fact that the mass of stone out of which his full stature is carved conveys both a sense of motion and incompleteness.

America has moved a great distance from its wretched past of slavery, lynching and officially sanctioned policies of segregation. But the long march towards the ideals that we profess did not end with Dr. King's speech. The quest for justice and equality continues. The Dream lives on, and the legacy of the man who was determined to speak to, and call forth, the moral voice within us now occupies a hallowed place among our heroes and our history.