It’s been more than half a century since the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated -- 51 years since he was shot dead standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. In this era of resurgent bigotry, of hateful rhetoric emanating from the White House, of violent protests by white supremacists, it has become fashionable to say that nothing has changed since then.
But that is simply not true. As the nation celebrates King’s birthday, we owe it to his memory to acknowledge just how much has changed. In the decades since his death, the United States has made momentous strides toward living up to its creed of justice and equality for all.
Oh, King would recognize the backlash that fueled the rise of President Donald J. Trump. Every period of great racial progress has been followed by a period of retrogression, by a resurgence of backward-looking bigotry and hate. The rise of Trumpism is another such manifestation.
Yet, the continued pace of progress cannot be denied. That’s what has so upset bigots such as U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who looks around and sees a nation that no longer gives him an automatic pass to power. Instead, the midterm elections gave congressional seats to more women -- and more women of color -- than ever before, the vast majority of them Democrats. Among those are the first two Muslim women and the first two Native American women ever to serve.
In Harris County, Texas, meanwhile, 19 black women -- calling themselves “Black Girl Magic” -- took seats on the bench. Given that the criminal justice system is one of the last bastions of explicit bigotry, the rise of black and brown judges and prosecutors is a sign that institutional racism in the court system may finally be ameliorated.
Those political victories were propelled, obviously, by the brigades of courageous activists who literally put their lives on the line for the right to vote during King’s day. But it’s also true that dramatic changes in popular culture helped pave the way for the ascent of black and brown Americans to positions of power -- not only in politics, but also in business, in law, in the academy. Once Hollywood began to portray black actors in the Oval Office, black women on the bench and black men in surgeons’ garb, many white Americans became more comfortable with that diversity in real life.
And Hollywood has also begun to embrace diversity in its studio suites, where the important decisions are made. Black writers and directors have brought stories to life that simply would not have been told 50 years ago -- or even 20 years ago. The commercial success of “Black Panther” will undoubtedly lead to many more films that are written for and about black folk.
None of that is meant to downplay the very real racism in our midst or to suggest that Trump and his minions are not doing significant harm to the nation’s civic fabric. The president has given aid and comfort to bigots; it’s no coincidence that reports of hate crimes have spiked during his tenure.
Nor does evidence of very real progress lessen the damage of the institutional racism that has never been stamped out. Black families still have a fraction of the net worth of white families: For every $100 in white-family wealth, black families hold about $5.04, according to The New York Times. Black homebuyers and would-be entrepreneurs still face significant barriers to credit.
Mass incarceration has worsened the plight of many black families since King’s death. Though African-Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the U.S. population, they constituted 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And police brutality continues unabated as white police officers rarely face sanctions for killing unarmed black men.
Those hard facts emphasize the long road ahead. We can gather strength for that journey by taking time to acknowledge how far we've come.