King's Legacy: Was the Battle Won or Lost?

January 19, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL III | WILEY A. HALL III,Wiley Hall is a columnist for The Evening Sun.

Martin Luther King Jr.'s 63rd birthday seems an excellent time to contemplate his legacy.

One legacy -- particularly for blacks born into the post civil rights generation -- is confusion: What were we fighting for? Was the fight worth the effort? Is the battle over or does it continue? Did we win or lose?

Dr. King, if he were alive today, might find these questions incomprehensible.

"Kids!" I can picture him exclaiming, "What's the matter with kids today?"

But the issues were much clearer, say, in 1955 at the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott.

Blacks were locked out of the mainstream by both law and custom back then. This was unfair and unconstitutional, and blacks clearly were damaged by discrimination politically, economically and socially.

The only debate within the black community then was over strategy, and the principal debate over strategy was over risk: Would tactics of confrontation lead to a white backlash and result in more harm than good? Wouldn't it be better to let understanding evolve over time?

(Note that Republican presidential hopeful Patrick Buchanan and too many black conservatives argue today that blacks would have been better off if they had sat back and waited and not aggravated white society.)

And this is where part of the confusion lies.

Thirty-six years after the triumph of the Montgomery boycott, whites seem to be fed up with civil rights and blacks seem frightened and disheartened.

The office of the president of the United States, an ally since Franklin D. Roosevelt, is now perceived as an enemy.

The U.S. Supreme Court seems more like an Extreme Court.

David Duke, once one of the very highest ranking officers of the Ku Klux Klan and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of White People, nearly became governor of Louisiana and is now running for president.

Attempts to eliminate bigotry and promote understanding on college campuses are dismissed by the highest authorities in the land as part of a fad for "political correctness."

To make matters worse, the black community seems more dysfunctional than ever before. The violence, the drug abuse, the poor performance in schools, the numbers of families trapped on welfare, the death of traditional black institutions, the lack of unity and purpose among black leaders all make it seem -- even to other blacks -- that blacks aren't worthy to be treated as equals even if whites were prepared to accept them.

It is as if Martin Luther King and his generation, through their courage and vision, pushed open the doors to opportunity and then the next generation deliberately slammed them shut again.

Truth is, everybody tries to be upbeat about Dr. King's legacy on his birthday. The rest of the year, though, they look at his legacy and despair.

I think it is time, at last, to clear up the confusion about Dr. King's legacy and the impact of the civil rights movement: The war for equality continues but we are winning.

The incidence of white backlash and black dysfunction illuminate the road we have to travel. But they mustn't obscure how far we have come.

In fact, blacks have come so far and they have done it so quickly that we tend to take it for granted.

There are superficial examples of this progress which, upon reflection, are more significant than they seem: we lament the absence of black role models, for instance, yet there there are far more black men and women in far more prominent positions than leaders in the 1950s could even have imagined.

For instance, the Washington-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reports that in January 1990, there were 7,370 black elected officials in the United States, including 26 members of Congress. Blacks represent only 2 percent of all elected officials, yet there are more blacks holding office now than ever before.

We lament the lack of black entreprenuers, yet a survey by the U.S. Census indicates that in 1987 there were approximately 424,000 black-owned firms in the country, and that such firms were becoming increasingly more likely to have paid employees and were becoming more diversified in terms of the types of goods and services they provided.

Other surveys indicate that there are more blacks in virtually every profession than ever before in the nation's history. The black middle class is broader and more diverse than ever before. Black economic status -- measured by both income and wealth -- has never been higher.

Meanwhile, white attitudes about blacks have changed so dramatically that we now find ourselves shocked and dismayed when David Duke expresses sentiments that were commonplace only a generation ago.

At the same time, of course, there has been a white backlash and there is a growing pool of blacks who are being left behind socially and economically. Black progress has slowed, and in some cases, been reversed, during the Reagan decade.

But the central question is this: would Dr. King have been confused by the state of race relations in America today or more determined than ever?

I think the answer to that is clear.

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