Decades after the “I have a Dream” speech, Atlanta professors aim to measure the progess
By Maggie Lee
In 1963, a quarter-million people marched on the Mall in Washington D.C., where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his “I have a Dream” speech, calling for making justice a reality for all God’s children.
But in 2018, when Andrea Young looks out on Atlanta’s streets, she sees people sleeping under bridges. When Nisha Botchwey presents five decades of numbers on everything from health to wealth to education, the charts show black Americans far behind 1-to-1 parity with whites.
“Fifty years later we should be at 1 [parity], not because whites in America are doing worse, but because blacks in America are doing better,” Botchwey, a city and regional planning professor at Georgia Tech, told a hundred or so people at the First Congregational Church of Atlanta.“We’re focused today on the last 50 years, but this struggle has gone on for much longer,” said Young, executive director of the Georgia ACLU and a professor at the Georgia State University policy studies school named for her father, Andrew Young. “Even before the era of ‘alternative facts’ and accusations of ‘fake news,’ Nisha and I saw a need to develop a set of objective measures of that progress toward equality.”
That’s the situation and data the two professors presented to a panel of Atlanta community leaders on Thursday night, under the title “Measuring the Dream.” It’s an ongoing project the two organized to stimulate scholarly discussion supported by research and analysis on the inequality that persists in the years since King’s speech.
Ambassador Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor and lifetime human rights activist, began the discussion by questioning the numerical comparison of black America to white America in the first place.
“Dr. King used to say that we’re not trying to learn how to seem like white folks. We’re trying to redeem the soul of America,” said Young. King “died with a $40,000 house and nothing much in the bank, but that doesn’t mean that he was not perhaps the greatest man of the century.”
And there began about a two-hour long discussion, sometimes disputatious, sometimes funny, but always about getting toward the same end of justice.
Like Andrew Young did, Bernard Lafayette worked with King. The onetime Freedom Rider and coordinator of the Poor People’s Campaign still trains people across the world on strategies for nonviolent social change.
Early in the evening, he talked about the purpose of the Poor People’s Campaign, when he and others brought poor people to a place where they’re rarely heard or considered: congressional hearings.
“The Poor People’s Campaign was for the purpose of helping legislators, the government, put a face on poverty. That’s why Martin Luther King wanted to bring poor people to Washington, D.C.,” said Lafayette.
King “had confidence that once people really felt others, rather than just looking at statistics, that that might make a difference,” Lafayette said.
But working on the inside, working on policy, is just one strategy that came up during the evening.
Mary Hooks has been at work in Atlanta as the co-director of Southerners on New Ground, a regional Queer Liberation organization that envisions a sustainable South that embodies the best of its freedom traditions and works towards the transformation of economic, social, spiritual, and political relationships.
Some of SONG’s most recent headline work was on Mother’s Day last year, when it and other groups organized bail for jailed moms. Later, Hooks was among the dozens who testified for the ultimately successful Atlanta legislation to let jailers waive cash bail in for those accused of certain low-level nonviolent offenses.
She talked about how to handle the effects of a broken social safety net and a cancelled social contract. She said the “inside” strategy, that of policy, is important. But so is the “outside” strategy: grassroots.
“That work of organizing everyday people, to fight for their lives, is where the expertise of solutions comes from, right?” said Hooks.
And she also touched on the “away” strategy.
“We aren’t just about shutting down highways and getting rid of the police, we actually have a vision, we have a vision about a different economic structure. We can never eliminate poverty if we don’t take seriously the need to dismantle capitalism,” she said, pointing towards other models, like cooperative businesses.
Park Cannon’s inside strategy takes place in a building just a block away from Atlanta City Hall, the gold-domed state Capitol. What inevitably prefaces her bio is that she’s the youngest legislator, 24 when she was elected in 2016. And she’s one of the handful of openly gay state lawmakers ever elected. A longer bio might include some of the things she’s often studying, asking, and talking about under the Gold Dome, like housing affordability, HIV prevention, and ending gun violence and homelessness.
But, embracing her spot in a young generation, she began by thanking Lafayette and Andrew Young for their work and said that in Georgians like her are standing on the shoulders of giants.
“Unfortunately, the bell tower that we need to climb to ring out our freedom song is still many stair steps away,” Cannon said.
Both Cannon and Hooks were scheduled to join the conversation during the second hour, talking about the Civil Rights movement not a generation or two ago, but in the 21st century so far. Both women took notes in books on their laps. Hooks flipped back through hers, joking that her mass of notes were “bananas” after sitting on the stage with Young and Lafayette.
It’s too early to say what all the younger people of the 21st century will be reflecting on, once they’re the elder statespeople on stages of the future.
Cannon said institutions, like the state Legislature she works at, need to step up. She said her generation of young leaders is ready to listen, are vessels, and urged people to speak to them and through them.
“I just want you to know that we do want a kinder world, we do want a more peaceful environment and right now while we’re ideating and we’re resisting, we are trying to listen to what you all have done and want to continue to be poured into,” said Cannon.