When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called on Americans to sit-in, speak out and march on Washington to demand justice and equality, he didn't know when or how civil rights would be achieved. Yet he inspired others with confidence, saying, "Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
The quote, from his teacher, abolitionist Rev. Theodore Parker, sums up Dr. King's belief in the power of justice. His faith was fueled by looking back toward earlier struggles, such as the movements that ended slavery and won the right to vote.
So in the United States of America this January of 2009, can we still believe that our moral universe is bending toward justice. Yes, we can.
On Jan. 20, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States – a milestone that is not an accident. We have come a long way from the civil rights battles of the 60s. We should understand this, recognize, it and appreciate it.
Today in America, far more opportunities exist for women and men of all races – including African Americans. We are mayors as well as musicians, business leaders as well as ball players, and lawyers as well as laborers. In the new administrations, Hilda Solis looks set to be our new Secretary of Labor, and Eric Holder is likely to be our attorney general. Steven Chu is the nominee for Energy Secretary and Lisa Jackson to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
This year we are seeing a new set of young people moving into positions of power and influence. They come without the baggage that burdens my generation, and they will do things their own way. Personally, I'm enjoying the ride.
We need to give America credit where it is due. Visit Europe and you won't see nearly so much diversity in the corridors of power. France? Just beginning to figure out why its minority citizens are in revolt. Britain? Progress is slow. Spain? The speed of immigration from Africa has far outpaced social progress. America's standing in the world is on the rise.
Still, painful contradictions remind us daily that Dr. King's dream remains an aspiration, not an achievement. Stubborn cultural barriers to true racial justice persist. Just take a look around. Here we are in idealistic Portland, a city overflowing with warm hearts and open minds. Yet minority children here are still far more likely to live in poverty and far less likely to graduate from high school – never mind college. We're sending far too many young Black and Latino men to jail. Urban unemployment seems to hit communities of color first and hardest. Minority families are struggling to lift themselves out of poverty. As for Black businesses – those that are succeeding are doing so in spite of Portland's business environment — not because of it.
Too often professionals from minority communities have been tasked with bringing our communities along – asking them to conform to a mainstream agenda instead of altering that agenda to fit our needs. But some African Americans have never been followers and we're not going to start now.
Not a single minority commissioner is serving on our new city council. Multnomah County? The same. Well-intentioned people all, but will they make the change we need?
Justice works through people and needs bold and fearless advocates who won't stop until the job is done. That's why Dr. King urged us to carry on until equal justice is achieved saying, "Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."