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Reflections on the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement

On its face, Martin Luther King Day is a holiday dedicated to the memory of one of the key figures in American history. Recently, it has become popular as a "National Day of Service" and an opportunity to give back to the community. For me, its greatest significance is as a day to reflect on the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and how America has changed (and not changed) since Martin Luther King, Jr's time.

The King Memorial in Washington, DC 
As I referenced in an earlier post on the anniversary of the March on Washington, King's "March to Freedom" began with the Emancipation Proclamation 151 years ago during the midst of the Civil War.  Some may say the movement ended at one of several key moments: the passage of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago, The Voting Rights Act the next year, the creation of the Martin Luther King Day holiday or the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States.

Culturally, Doug Williams' accolades as the first Black quarterback to win the Super Bowl and Tony Dungy as the first head coach of color to win the Super Bowl were both heralded as key barrier-breaking moments. The end could be when Oprah Winfrey became a billionaire or the moment that hip-hop culture achieved crossover status or one of many other moments. A quick google search will find over 100 million online articles for "post-racial America," with the vast majority dating created since Obama's nomination as the Democratic candidate in 2008.


From a research and policy analysis standpoint, it's hard to argue that the "March to Freedom" ever ended - Stanford's Center on Poverty and Inequality recently released the latest major study to look at wealth, health, education and income inequality measures, many of which show increasing racial disparities. Five decades after the major Civil Rights legislation was passed has not meant that society has caught up with all the goals that policymakers envisioned - many are finding themselves in worse conditions as time goes by.  I find it alarming that the media, policymakers and the general public do not pay more attention to these distressing conclusions and what they say about America's future.  I am involved in an ongoing debate with colleagues about the impact of policy change on "on the ground" conditions, and this is an example where the results are mixed at best.  To me, that means that a fresh look must be taken.

This is the context for some of the questions that I have asked on this blog -

While it may be satisfying to stamp an end date on something and move on, many of the goals that were held by Civil Rights pioneers are far from being met.  We should look at this holiday as an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made and simultaneously look at where we are now and the actions that we need to take in the present to reach societal goals.  We can and should celebrate an American leader's life today with the traditional auto sales and commemorative events, but MLK day can be bigger. It's another opportunity to do more than one thing at a time.

Do you consider the Civil Rights Movement to have ended? If so, when, and if not, when would you consider it finished? You can follow me @DrUrbanPolicy on twitter and facebook, and I'm happy to continue the conversation there or below.

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