The 2006 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Committee chose “a time comes when silence is betrayal” as the theme statement for the University’s events this year commemorating the late civil rights leader. The phrase from a 1967 speech by Dr. King reflects the need to challenge the disturbing notion that the struggle for equality is over. It is important to remember the gains activists across the country made decades ago. With racial segregation and discrimination still prevalent throughout our society, however, it is more important to recognize that the perception that the civil rights movement is over and done is dangerously wrong.
University President Mary Sue Coleman, in her brief remarks at yesterday’s symposium, spoke directly and forcefully of her views on the one issue relating to Dr. King’s struggles which will the most attention in 2006 – the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. Coleman is correct in her assessment that MCRI is a wrongheaded proposal that stands to benefit neither the state nor the University. The ongoing debate over affirmative action, however, often overshadows more fundamental areas where Dr. King’s work remains unfinished.
The nation has never fully dealt with its legacy of legally enforced segregation. Though the U.S. Supreme Court forbade the enforcement of restrictive covenants that prevented minorities from owning property in many neighborhoods nearly 60 years ago, the pattern was already set. To this day, cases of insurance and mortgage redlining support the segregation that persists in many of our metropolitan areas. A series of hate crimes against black families in Detroit suburbs last year made it all too clear that those who leave a segregated urban neighborhood aren’t always met with open arms.
This residential segregation has led too many students to attend segregated schools. More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education, little has changed for many minority students who find few, if any, white peers in their classes. Integration programs have been largely abandoned, leading Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project to find that school integration peaked in the late 1980s and that the nation’s public schools are as segregated now as they were in 1968.
The segregated schooling provided to many minority students – what education critic Jonathan Kozol calls apartheid education – does little to remedy the situation Brown’s authors recognized in their statement that “separate is inherently unequal.” Indeed, funding inequities between wealthy suburban school districts and their less affluent urban counterparts mean that society today fails even to provide a “separate but equal” that might have been acceptable under Plessy v. Ferguson, but which Brown overruled.
This segregation is not only unjust, but it ultimately deprives many citizens of the interactions with members of other races to achieve the brotherhood that Dr. King sought. Unfortunately, it is but one area of continuing iniquity. President Bush drew attention last year to the fact that black Americans, on average, lead shorter lives than white Americans. Unfortunately, he did so not to propose efforts to address unequal access to health insurance, but – taking this disparity as an immutable fact – to drum up support among blacks for his Social Security reforms. Hurricane Katrina made the continued existence of the stark poverty King mobilized against all too evident. The list, sadly, goes on.
Anna Deavere Smith, this year’s MLK Symposium keynote speaker, has literally made an art out of listening to those from diverse backgrounds. Her approach is a valuable means of raising awareness, but lectures and dialogues alone will not do enough to address the inequalities that are too often met with complacency in our society. When the state of urban public schools fails to live up to even Plessy’s meager goals, when a hurricane devastates black neighborhoods and the nation ultimately shrugs, to accept today’s pervasive inequalities silently as the best we could do is truly a betrayal of Dr. King’s dream.