The nation marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution marked the anniversary with a week of commemorative editions and a series highlighting the changes in policy over the past half-century.
In a three-day series beginning April 1, the newspaper asked, “a panel of academics and policy experts to talk about the state of race relations, social mobility and segregation 50 years since the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. They represent a cross-section of thought and expertise.”
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist and Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University. Her research focuses on African American politics. She is the author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark and Post-Racial America and the forthcoming Race and the Obama Administration: Substance, Symbols and Hope.
Benita Dodd, a native of South Africa, who moved to the United States in 1986. A longtime Cobb County resident and former AJC journalist, Dodd is a member of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a free-market think tank.
David J. Dennis, Jr. is an adjunct journalism professor at Morehouse College. He’s a writer for Interactive One whose work has also appeared on ESPN, The Atlantic, Uproxx, The Huffington Post and more. He’s a proud alum of Davidson College.
Charles Bullock is University Professor of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He has authored, co-authored, edited or co-edited more than 30 books including The Three Governors Controversy. In 2011 and 2012 Georgia Trend Magazine included him among the 100 Most Influential Georgians.
The first part of the series is published below in full. Access the series online here (subscription required): https://www.myajc.com/news/years-after-king-death-how-are-doing/xdzJALAN3LMUW8svNU7L5J/
QUESTION: The final chapter of King’s life was devoted to speaking out for the underclass, especially African-Americans in the South. How are we doing, 50 years later, when it comes to providing solutions (economic, education, housing) aimed at lifting the underclass?
GILLESPIE: The issues that Dr. King was addressing at the time of his death are still relevant today. We have not solved the poverty problem. There are still people who live in substandard housing. And the quality of a child’s education is too closely correlated to the zip code she lives in. We have a long way to go before we solve this problem. Part of the reason why the problem still persists is our reluctance to seriously grapple with the ways that policies—not people—help to exacerbate these problems. While we can all cite examples of the ways that some individual’s personal failings contributed to their hardship, we cannot explain away all forms of inequality as just the sum of a person’s bad life choices. Often, there are larger, structural forces which explain a lot of the inequality. For example, how do we expect poor people in inner cities to get to suburban jobs if we refuse to invest in comprehensive public transportation that connects all parts of the metropolitan area? In those cases, high unemployment is not just a function of a person’s laziness — there may be some important considerations that policymakers should address as opposed to just scapegoating poor people and their “bad habits” for rhetorical gain
DODD: King understood the dignity of work: “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance …” It’s encouraging to see restored emphasis on the dignity of work as policymakers focus on low-income individuals and families. As a Brookings Institution study’s headline declares, “Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare.” Intact families supported by working adults lead to economic stability and upward mobility. Welfare-to-work policies implemented under President Clinton were effective; SNAP (food stamp) work requirements waived during the economic downturn are being phased back in, dramatically increasing the numbers of able-bodied Georgia adults returning to the workforce and reducing the need for the benefit.
As policymakers focus on a hand up instead of a handout, education is foundational. Instead of trapping struggling children in failing schools based on their ZIP codes – or in schools that fail to meet students’ needs – parents can take advantage of options from charter schools to digital education, supplemental education services and scholarships to private schools. Studies show minority parents, especially, are the biggest supporters of choice, regardless of political affiliation. The same applies to housing: Instead of gathering low-income families in public housing complexes, they are being assimilated into communities and mentored to self-reliance as bill-paying tenants and, eventually, homeowners.
DENNIS: There may have been a small window of progress post-King in America, but that era is long gone. As it stands right now black household (wealth) is on pace to be zero by 2053. That’s not a typo. Zero dollars. Schools are as segregated as ever and housing discrimination has threatened to run African-Americans from places we’ve called home. However, the solutions are there. Black America has pushed for equal and fair education, job opportunities and housing opportunities that allow us to live and thrive wherever we want to. So, yes, the solutions to lift the underclass exist, but America has failed to listen and accept these solutions. Which means that fulfilling King’s dreams for equality requires the continuation of his efforts to disrupt a system designed to keep black and brown people poor with little means of escape.
BULLOCK: The key to improving economic conditions for the vast majority of the impoverished is education. Economic success demands a skill set that meshes with an economy that sees increasing numbers of jobs lost to automation or outsourcing. The challenges of demonstrating that the long-term rewards from striving in school offer a greater payoff than the more alluring immediate temptations confound all but the most dedicated and talented educators. … The need is for role models who can instill a belief that hard work and study will lead to a better life. Many of the obstacles that used to deny advancement to the hardworking are gone, yet, sadly, statistics tell us that the prospects for a child born in poverty to achieve a significantly better life have never been worse.