Today is the annual Martin Luther King Jr., holiday. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay ponders what we can do to advance King’s legacy in Rhode Island.
The great civil rights leader’s legacy will be celebrated across Rhode Island today in song, sermon and remembrance. Voices will echo with the strains of James Weldon Johnson’s `Lift Every Voice and Sing’ and that iconic anthem of the civil rights movement, `We Shall Overcome.’
Preachers and politicians will give thanks for all that has been accomplished. And how much needs to be done before every American is judged by the content of his or her character, rather than their skin color.
2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which arguably has had the most influence of any legislation in advancing the cause of equality. Never in the dreams of Martin Luther King could he have imagined that a 21st Century American president would be an African-American.
Yet, even capturing the White House has not meant full equality for a people who were forced to our nation in chains. The odious legacies of slavery and racism infect still our public discourse and the daily lives of minorities. Evidence of how far we still must travel tears at our social fabric, from the police mistreatment and even fatal shootings of blacks across America.
The Rev. King visited Rhode Island three times during the heyday of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. All of those appearances were on college campuses. In November of 1960, King spoke at Brown University, urging an interracial civil rights coalition and lauding the election of President John F. Kennedy as a ``great victory for tolerance and the nation.’’
At the University of Rhode Island in 1966, King told an audience of 5,000 that he feared that the country had ``taken a swing to the reactionary’’ that would lead to more tension and divides in the civil rights movement. A year later, in his final speech in the Ocean State, King delivered an anti-Vietnam War address at Sayles Hall on the Brown campus.
Rhode Island was never in the vanguard of the civil rights crusade. Our New England state had few of the obvious symbols of the apartheid society that was the American South, with murderous lynchings, separate school systems and the suppression of voting rights.
Yet blacks had scant influence in our state. Rhode Island had a tiny black population. Blacks had lived here since the 1600’s, but this community never made up more than 2 percent of the state’s population. Providence had the biggest concentration of blacks. Yet they didn’t reach nine percent of the population until 1970.
If you mine the memories of an older generation of black Rhode Islanders they will confirm that racism tainted job opportunities. Perhaps all you need to know is that Providence did not hire its first black police officer until after World War II.
You may be under the impression that things have changed significantly since that era. If so, you’re wrong. Providence once required that city employees live in the city. Pressure from unions representing these workers led to an end to residency requirements in the 1990s, just as the city’s population was evolving from a white majority to a minority-majority.. Through residency, the sons and daughters of the Irish and Italian-American immigrants who forged the 20th Century Providence were able to climb the economic ladder through city employment. Once the capital city emerged as a place dominated by African-American, Asian-American and Latino groups, the residency ladder was pulled up.
The result: Providence’s police, schools and City Hall do not reflect the 21st Century population. The most blatant example is the school department, where more than 90 percent of students are non-white, but about 80 percent of teachers are white. Seventy-six percent of city police officers are white.
If we are serious about upholding King’ s ideals in our new century, is there any better path than addressing this issue? ``The arc of history is long,’’ King famously said. ``But it bends towards justice.’’
Isn’t it time we thought about that every day, not just on Martin Luther King Day.
Scott MacKay's commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:50 and 8:50 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at the `On Politics' Blog at RIPR.org