Today we celebrate the 85th birth date of Martin Luther King, Jr. Whenever you say that famous name, we immediately think of two things — his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and the “I Have a Dream” speech.
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Aug. 28, 2013, was the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech given at the culmination of the historic March on Washington, a national event that carried such emotional investment by the country in 1963 that every march on Washington since has been a pale imitation.
The resounding ending of the speech was about his dream, but the beginning had its own elements of great phrasing:
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
“And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
We find these words appealing as a reminder to us all of our shared American values and the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, two documents upon which we all depend for our freedom, and about which we must always remind our governmental representatives.
Martin Luther King Jr. enunciated six different dreams, but the dream that stood out the most and has echoed beyond the contemporary events of 1963 was the fourth dream:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Fifty years later we believe this part of the dream has been largely — though not 100 percent — accomplished. This country twice elected a biracial black man as president. That is 180 degrees from what the circumstances were in 1963.
King’s sixth dream began about exalting “every valley,” and it included an expression of faith: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
In terms of economic prospects for the black community, though, the “mountain of despair” has grown larger since 1963.
Consider this item from Wikipedia that is confirmed from several other sources:
“In New York City in 1925, 85 percent of kin-related black households had two parents. When Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned in his 1965 report on the coming destruction of the black family, however, the out-of-wedlock birthrate had increased to 25 percent among blacks. This figure continued to rise over time and in 1991, 68 percent of black children were born outside of marriage. U.S. Census data from 2010 reveal that more African-American families consisted of single-parent mothers than married homes with both parents. Most recently, in 2011 it was reported that 72 percent of black babies were born to unwed mothers.”
From the Dec. 23, 2012, issue of Atlanta Black Star comes this analysis:
“American single mothers find themselves challenged by high living costs, even though the U.S. government provides more child welfare spending than other countries. Employment is also more common for U.S. single parents, with 35.8 percent earning an income compared to 21.3 percent internationally, but single mother families still suffer from a poverty rate of 63 percent.”
From familyifacts.org comes the following figures from a graph, showing 72.5 percent of black children in single-parent households, 53.3 percent for Hispanics, 40.8 percent for all races and 29 percent for whites, with the last two categories showing the highest rate of increase.
There are some asterisks to consider as evidenced by the American Community Survey report titled “Social and Economic Characteristics of Unmarried Women with Recent Birth 2011.”
Drawing from this report, Christian Science Monitor correspondent Stephanie Hanes on May 3, 2013, wrote, “Of 1.4 million unmarried women, 408,000 in the survey who gave birth in the past 12 months described themselves as a ‘partner in an unmarried household.’” That works out to 29 percent.
And, “According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 42 percent of children will have lived with cohabiting parents by the time they are 12 years old, almost twice as many who will have divorced parents,” Hanes wrote.
The country as a whole has done a pretty good job of living up to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fourth dream.
Nevertheless it is going to take a lot of hewing to transform the despair of 72 percent of black children born to single mothers to turn that into a “stone of hope.”