Martin Luther King Jr. Day, observed Monday, is as good a time as any to take stock of progress made toward establishing "a reign of freedom and a rule of justice" that King called for in his Dec. 10, 1964, acceptance address for the Nobel Peace Prize.
King's Oslo speech was delivered as battles were being waged back home to end America's long nightmare of racial injustice. Six months earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson, signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, had called upon Americans to "close the springs of racial poison."
The thought was nice, but the springs of poison flowed and flowed throughout 1964, The Washington Post reports.
On June 13 of that year, J.B. Stoner, a Georgia segregationist (who was convicted in 1980 in the 1958 bombing of the Bethel Street Baptist Church) led a crowd of white people on a long march through a black neighborhood in St. Augustine, Florida, holding a Confederate flag while another segregationist toted a sign that read "Kill Civil Rights Bill."
On June 18, 1964, a group of whites and African Americans entered a segregated hotel swimming pool in that same city. A white manager poured acid into the water, shouting "I'm cleaning the pool!"
Summer of 1964 witnessed students from the North traveling to Mississippi to help register black voters. It was called "Freedom Summer." They were greeted with Ku Klux Klan-inspired violence.
Three volunteers - Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white New Yorkers, and James Chaney, a black Mississippian - disappeared on their way back from investigating the burning of an Africa-American church by the Klan.
Their bodies were later discovered buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi.
It was also a summer in which racially motivated riots related to police brutality erupted in New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago.
The New York riots saw protesters marching in Harlem streets after a 15-year-old African American was shot and killed by a police lieutenant July 16. Protesters marched in Harlem streets. Six days of rioting: one dead, 118 injured and more than 450 arrested.
As 1964 drew to a close, the reign of freedom and rule of justice were far, far away.
Today's books are filled with good laws. School segregation is illegal. A Civil Rights Act bans racial discrimination in employment, racial segregation in public places and unequal application of voter registration requirements. The 1965 Voting Rights Act outlawed state and local practices that prevented African Americans from exercising the constitutional right to vote. The act provides substantial federal authority to supervise voting and election procedures.
The greatest contrast between the time King led the struggle for America's legal and social transformation and now is a White House occupied by Donald Trump.
The federal government, once a powerful legal and moral force to make real the promise of democracy, is in the hands of adversaries who seek to restore a hierarchy in which the interests of the bigot, the xenophobic, the sexist and the defender of white male privilege always come out on top.
There is a long list of ways in which backtracking on civil and human rights has occurred since the election of a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes. It ranges from discriminatory travel bans against Muslims to turning a federal blind eye to intentionally racially discriminatory state voter suppression schemes, to opposing protections for transgender people, to inhumanely separating children from families seeking to enter the country.
Sadly, that's not all that stands out.
Once the federal locus of the nation's quest for racial reconciliation, today's White House is a source of racial divisiveness, and a beacon to the prejudice-warped fringes of American society. It's no surprise that the FBI found hate crimes in America rose 17 percent in 2017, the third consecutive year that such crimes increased. In King's day, racially loaded, hateful rhetoric could be heard across the length and breadth of the Deep South. Now mean, disgusting and inflammatory words come out of the mouth of the president of the United States.
How far have we traveled?
From the promise of guaranteed rights to a return to the insecurity of injustice. A pluralistic America is being cynically drawn along racial lines by a president who is as far from the civility of his predecessors Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, Carter, Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton and Obama as the charter of the Confederacy was from the Constitution.
King, and the movement he led, would be outraged. The rest of us should be, too.
This story was originally from The Washington Post and republished here with permission