Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.
Go see The Help, the movie based on the best selling book by Kathryn Stockett. Watching the film is a fitting way to to mark the anniversary of MLK’s 1963 I Have a Dream Speech. The Help is a powerful story about house maids, segregation, and economic inequality in Jackson Mississippi in the early 1960s.
We’ve made some progress in the last 40 years. But despite the Civil Rights Act and the longest boom period in American history, there is a massive gap of economic disparity and opportunity. At 16%, African American unemployment is about twice that of whites, and it is twice that in urban areas particularly if you include under employed and discouraged workers. This stems from a historical lack of assets for every dollar that white households have in financial resources, blacks have only eight cents.
More African Americans are graduating from high school and attending college. We should celebrate the progress made in the last decade, but EdWeek reports that, “Although the rates for key historically underserved groups have improved over time, they remain a cause for concern. Among Latinos in the class of 2008, 58 percent finished high school with a diploma, while 57 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Native Americans graduated.”
Two hundred years ago, Tocqueville, a visiting Frenchman, pointed to religion and family as two factors which would check run away capitalism. Both in decline, they are hardly checking the slide. Growing acceptance of inequality in our collective psychology and mass media helps us forget the ghettos of our inner cities. Tall trees, wide boulevards, and handsome landscaping helps communities like mine ignore the fact that about half of our children live in or near poverty.
“What should inspire all who see it is that no matter your station in life, you can make a difference,” said Roland Martin in a CNN opinion piece. “King was just 25 when he was drafted into the movement. If there is something in your community that needs to be addressed, do it. Don’t wait. Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Don’t pass the buck. Just be willing to serve, care and do it out of love and compassion.”
Two principles central to Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings, racial justice and economic justice, remain alive in our society largely owing to the breath and success of public education. The anniversary of the Dream speech is a reminder that we have more work to do. Children need more than an opportunity to learn, they deserve an opportunity to earn. We must guarantee that students graduate with the knowledge and skills that will allow them to get and keep family wage jobs and to become a contributing citizen.
A few thousand adults in my community are keeping the dream of racial and economic justice alive for our 25,000 children by providing great educational opportunities, after school and athletic programs, church-based education and youth activities, and social services for families. They reach out with compassion and show the children that somebody cares about them and their future. These unassuming warriors for justice go about their work with little recognition and limited or no compensation. They fight the good fight and find satisfaction in seeing the smiles of children, receiving the thanks of struggling parents, and knowing that one person that cares deeply enough really can change the world. They are keeping the dream alive.
[Good Work is a Sunday series that started as a series of journal entries while serving as a public school superintendent in the 90s]