The nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday with parades, community service and calls for harmony after a year that again tested the boundaries of race relations in the United States.
With major parades in Los Angeles and San Antonio, President Obama leading the nation in a day of community service, and a variety of other commemorations across much of the nation, the United States remembered the assassinated civil rights leader whose nonviolent campaigns helped end racial segregation and increased blacks’ political participation and rights.
Yet even as the nation remembered how far it has come on racial issues, there were also signs of far it still has to go.
A Gallup poll released Monday found that in the years the nation’s first African American president has been office, perceptions on race relations have worsened. In January 2008, when Obama came into office, 51% of respondents said they were satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the state of race relations, Gallup said. In its new poll, taken Jan. 5-8, 30% said they were satisfied with the state of race relations, the steepest decline among seven issues measured by the poll.
“Almost every American alive knows the words 'I have a dream' should be associated with Martin Luther King,” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a speech on Monday at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington.
“For his efforts, the man we honor with a national holiday and a national monument, alongside Washington and Lincoln, was the target of racist insults, bricks, bottles, numerous death threats, a knife in the chest in Harlem in 1958, and finally, an assassin’s bullet in Memphis in 1968,” Johnson said.
The campaign to create a holiday for King began after the assassination, and in 1983 President Reagan signed the legislation designating the holiday into law. Still, it wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states celebrated the holiday by name.
“The irony of today is that Mrs. King’s dream of a national holiday for her husband has become a reality,” Johnson said. “Dr. King’s dream of a world at peace with itself has not.”
In 2013, 27% of African Americans lived in poverty, compared with a 10% rate for white Americans, according to census data collected by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Nearly a third of African American high school students do not graduate on time, double the rate of whites and Asian Americans. The federal government estimates that one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
Perhaps the most glaring racial issue in the last year is the relationship between black communities and white police officers in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner, who died after being placed in an apparent choke-hold by a New York police officer on Staten Island.
Grand juries in both cases decided not to charge the respective officers.
At a King commemoration in Ferguson on Sunday, Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. (D-Mo.) spoke at Wellspring United Methodist Church, just blocks from where violent protests broke out after the grand jury decision not to charge the officer who killed Brown. Many have called Ferguson the new Selma, a reference to the Alabama community where King led a key march in 1965 that helped produce the Voting Rights Act.
“We need to be outraged when local law enforcement and the justice system repeatedly allow young, unarmed black men to encounter police and then wind up dead with no consequences,” Clay said. “Not just in Ferguson, but over and over again across this country.”
Clay was joined by eight members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the commemoration.
Caucus Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said the group planned to push for broad changes, such as expanded police use of body cameras and independent investigations of fatal police shootings.
Vice President Joe Biden on Monday said minority communities and police departments across the country need to work to bridge the separation between them.
“There's no reason on Earth we cannot repair the breach that we've recently seen between law enforcement and minority communities,” he said at the annual Organization of Minority Women breakfast.
Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama marked the holiday with community service at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington. The organization helps youngsters develop the skills they need to become responsible adults.
In a proclamation issued last week, the president said the U.S. has made “undeniable progress” since King agitated for justice and equality for all, but that securing those gains requires “constant vigilance, not complacency.”
He called on Americans to stand together for good jobs, fair wages, safe neighborhoods and quality education -- themes he is expected to sound in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
At Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King held the pulpit, the 47th Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Service took place with dignitaries and members of King’s family attending.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), himself a civil rights icon who worked and marched with King, recalled him as his hero.
“The memory of such a great man can never, ever fade,” Lewis said. “I still think about him almost every day.”
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