Martin Luther King Jr. made history with his "I have a dream" speech. Fifty years later African Americans and other minorities still fight against discrimination in the United States. What happened to his big dream?
Bob Tiller looks over to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech on August 28, 1963. "On that day the crowd all gathered around in front of the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool and was very calm, happy and enthusiastic about what they were about to experience," he said.
Tiller was part of that crowd. The then 22-year-old left his workplace without permission to participate in the march. "I grew up with the civil rights movement and felt how important it was to be there on that day." Approximately 250,000 people felt the same and listened carefully to King's speech and the words of other speakers who wanted to set an example against the discrimination of black citizens. "The most unforgettable line of the speech is probably when King describes how one day children from all backgrounds will be able to play together without regard to the color of their skin," Tiller said.
Civil rights activist Bob Tiller overlooks the Lincoln memorial in Washington D.C., where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech in 1963
"I have a dream that one day […] former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood […]. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," were the words King used to paint his vision of the future.
On a summer afternoon 50 years later, black and white families sit together on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, taking pictures, laughing. With Barack Obama, an African American is leading the United States. So has the dream come true already?
No whites in sight
Only about 25 kilometers away the picture looks different. In Washington D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood volunteers hand out food to homeless people and those in need. No white person is in sight here - Anacostia is black. While handing a sandwich to a girl, Geneva Heyward says: "I was one of them. I was on the opposite side of the table as a kid. It's a cycle that never ends: mommy was poor, I'm poor, so my kids are going to be poor. Grandma went to the food bank, my mother went there, so I'm going there."
The 36 year-old lost her mother to alcohol. Now she is a mother of four herself and has managed to break the cycle. She is involved with helping Washington D.C.'s troubled neighborhoods. "I come back and help because I know the need and the situation of the people here," she said.
High poverty rate amongst black Americans
Since the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, black Americans are legally on equal terms and discrimination is forbidden in education, jobs or private life. However, the consequences of the racial segregation of the past are still visible. In Anacostia unemployment and crime rates are higher than in any other part of the American capital city.
Taking into account the entire country, it doesn't look much different. According to a report by the US Census Bureau, nearly one in four black US-Americans lived in poverty between 2007 and 2011. The same can be said about only every 10th white citizen.
"Slavery is responsible for the fact that until today African-American families still have less resources than white families," says Tiller, who has worked for several civil rights organizations. "After slavery was over, they had to start from scratch and were still being discriminated against. If people can't find a job for decades and they were denied any access to schools and universities, then it is difficult for them to provide their children with a bright future," he says.
Climbing the ladder of success
Nevertheless, nowadays successful blacks can be found in leading positions everywhere. One example is James Farmer, who studied chemical engineering and now works as a management consultant. The 32-year-old lived the American Dream and climbed the ladder of success. "I never experienced any discrimination while I was studying. It was all about performance," he says. "I was a very ambitious, hard-working student. I volunteered for the campus government while being involved with the community, which blew the mind of most of the job recruiters. I got the most job offers of the whole class."
Farmer understood very early on that as a black kid he would have to work harder than others. "My grandfather used to tell me that it's not going to be just enough for me to be a good student," Farmer says. "He said you have to be a straight-A student. You have to strive to be the best in every single thing that you do, because people are watching you. And when they see you, you are not doing this for yourself. You are a representation of our family, you are a representation of our race."
However, Farmer still thinks American society is headed in the right direction. "There is no reason that as an American I should be denied any rights, regardless of my race, religion or sexuality. And I think we are coming to realize this, so that element of Martin Luther's dream is becoming a reality," he says.
New civil rights movment of gays and lesbians
Farmer lives together with his boyfriend and is thus not only familiar with the situation of black Americans, but also of gays and lesbians. Their current fight against discrimination is similar to the African American civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. And the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community has just had a breakthrough. The US Supreme Court recently quashed a law that had limited tax and other benefits available to marriages between a man and a woman. A Californian law that forbids same-sex marriage was also overturned.
But the LGTB community continues to fight. "It is possible to fire employees based on their sexual orientation in 29 US states. We've long been trying to put a bill through Congress that ends this discrimination, but there is a lot of resistance," according to an employee of the Human Rights Campaign, one of the largest LGTB associations in the US.
"The first step is always to make discrimination illegal," says civil rights activist Tiller glancing at the Lincoln Memorial one last time. "We've already managed to do that regarding African Americans and I am happy that the LGTB community is making progress as well. I think we simply can't change the hearts of people that quickly, but we managed to change a lot of important laws."
Fifty years after Martin Luther King's speech, his dream has neither come true nor has it been shattered - America is still dreaming.