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MLK's dream has both succeeded and failed

Fifty years ago Wednesday, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and gave what would become one of the most remembered speeches in American history.

We know it, of course, as the “I have a dream speech,” and many of us in Michigan also know that he gave an earlier version in Detroit just two months before. They celebrated the anniversary of the more famous version in Washington last weekend.

To me, the most significant celebration of that speech came on the anniversary five years ago, when another powerful young black orator recited parts of it before an TV audience. That time it was not the quarter of a million people who heard it in 1963.

That time it was two hundred and fifty million, and the speaker began with a line MLK probably never imagined: “I accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States.”

We have come a long way. But I think we should think about this. If Martin Luther King had not been assassinated less than five years after he gave that speech, he might very well be alive today. He would be younger than John Dingell or Jimmy Carter. If he were here, what would he think?

Did his dream come true? Clearly in some ways, we may have exceeded his dream. We do have a black president. When African-Americans become heads of corporations or universities or governors or senators, it scarcely merits notice these days.

Segregation of the kind King knew has long ceased to exist, even in places like Mississippi. Yet if King were taken to see the poverty and despair of Detroit or Flint, he might think black America was worse off than half a century ago.  Especially when he looked at the crack epidemic and incarceration rates.

Nearly three-quarters of African-American babies are born to unmarried parents, a rate far higher than in King’s time. And while there may be less discrimination, there are far less jobs for blue-collar and unskilled workers than in his day.

There is, however one area in which Martin Luther King’s dream has utterly failed in a way in which might surprise him. Segregation is dead in the workplace and in restaurants. But in most parts of this nation white people just won’t live with black people.

I’m not talking about twenty-something urban pioneers in midtown Detroit or professors in Ann Arbor. I am talking about Main Street America. In his pioneering study “Two Nations” twenty years ago, political scientist Andrew Hacker noted that whenever the black population of a community reached between 10 and 20 percent, virtually all the whites leave. Little has changed since.

The middle-class bedroom community of Southfield was less than nine percent black in 1980. Ten years later, it was twenty-nine percent. Two decades later, Southfield was seventy percent black. That would be even higher, except for a remaining community of Orthodox Jews who need to be in walking distance of their places of worship. Will residential segregation ever end?

My guess is yes, but for a different reason. The number of interracial marriages and interracial children is exploding, Someday, today’s racial categories may have little meaning. In the meantime, let’s hope the dream never dies.