When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago on the National Mall, legal and institutional barriers limited black Americans in many ways.
These barriers have largely been overcome and removed, but a new set of problems and challenges have replaced them, black conservatives told the Washington Free Beacon.
“The change has been sweeping and astounding,” said Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, Inc. and the former executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King founded in the 1950s.
After World War II, black soldiers returned to an “apartheid south,” Hicks said. There were separate water fountains, bathrooms, restaurants, and schools for black and white people. It was difficult for blacks to travel from the north, where there were fewer barriers, to the south. And the races were divided socially.
Ward Connerly, the founder and president of the American Civil Rights Institute, said that while he personally did not experience much of this discrimination, he did see some of it.
“When my wife and I married in 1962, I recall the stares that we would get when we dated, how our relationship was frowned upon by the rest of society,” Connerly said.
King’s speech in 1963 was the apex of a civil rights movement that had been gathering for several years, Hicks said.
“It was perfect for that occasion … it really put the whole movement on a very high moral plane,” Hicks said.
Legal reforms such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act followed the March on Washington, enshrining in law many of the demands of the civil rights movement.
“I think the dream largely has been fulfilled,” said Hicks. Black people have full participation in the voting process and a majority of black Americans are in the middle class, he said.
Society is also much more integrated, Connerly said.
Black Americans now have much greater economic, political, and academic opportunity than they did 50 years ago, said Stacy Swimp, president of the Frederick Douglass Society.
“Nine times out of ten, there are no permanent boundaries around you today that you do not place around yourself,” he said.
Derryck Green, a spokesman for the black conservative leadership network Project 21, pointed to the increased numbers of black Americans holding political office as evidence of progress. Congress had no more than five black members in 1963. Now there are more than 40.
“That alone signals a difference,” he said.
President Barack Obama’s election was a signal triumph of the civil rights movement, said Lisa Fritsch, a Tea Party activist and radio show host.
“Being president of the United States is the ultimate authority, the ultimate power,” she said.
The organizers of the original March on Washington, said Hicks, “couldn’t have imagined a black president being elected twice in a country that was lynching people in the early 1960s.”
While much of King’s dream has been fulfilled, there is still much tension between blacks and whites, said Swimp.
“When certain instances come to pass, you see how deep the tension goes,” he said, alluding to the death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his killer George Zimmerman.
Remnants of institutional discrimination also remain in some places, said Swimp. One example: The Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 was intended, in part, to stop black laborers from undercutting their unionized white competitors. It is still enforced today in a way that disproportionately impacts minority workers.
There is a “two-tiered system” within the black community, Connerly said.
“The lower class has not gotten an education to get out of the situation that they are in, but there is nothing legally or institutionally that holds them back.”
Connerly and others pointed to several factors that are causing blacks to struggle.
Parts of the black community are perpetuating a “racial mythology that has little basis in fact,” Hicks said.
“Is there racism in America? Well, yes, there is,” Hicks said. “So what? … Life isn’t fair.”
Swimp blamed the woes of many black Americans on the community having “morally surrendered.”
“We have turned a blind eye to things that are destroying our communities and that are responsible for what we are getting,” he said.
He pointed to the breakdown of the black family and prevalent abortion of black babies as examples of moral surrender.
Swimp also attributed some blame for the breakdown of the black family on federal welfare programs, which he said encourage single motherhood.
Seventy-two percent of all black babies were born to a single mother in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Swimp, Fritsch, and Green all called for a spiritual renewal within the black American community.
“I want to see churches as the nucleus of these urban communities take these communities back,” Fritsch said.