Dr. Hermon George, Jr. sits in a plastic chair near the front corner of a small classroom, respectfully waiting his turn to speak. Impeccably dressed in a sharp suit and tie, he completes his look with a white beret. He does not give off the air of someone who waits often; George exudes the quiet confidence of a man who makes it his habit to enrapture audiences with eloquent speech, but for tonight he will wait as the first act finishes up: a recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s eminent “I Have A Dream” speech.
George has actually been one of my favorite professors throughout my collegiate career, despite his never being able to remember my name when he sees me (hey! but he knows my face!). He’s a little bit notorious on campus for having high expectations in the classroom, giving impassioned rants about the state of black people today and an austere personal style that has students spreading rumors that he was once a Black Panther.
Having earned his bachelor’s degree in political science a few years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, George has had the privilege of watching a new era of race politics in America unfold before his eyes. A professor of Africana Studies at University of Northern Colorado, he has been published in academic journals such as the Journal of Ethnic Studies and The Black Scholar discussing the black experience in America. So, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March On Washington, what does George have to say about Dr. King’s most often-quoted address to a nation in need of hope?
“Brother gives a good speech, but for we the living, the work continues,” George said.
Two weeks ago one of my journalism professors invited Dr. George to our class to discuss whether or not King’s dream has been realized, and the verdict was clear — we’ve got a long way to go.
In order to give a better understanding of the legacy of the “I Have A Dream” speech, George first set it into context. He described a nation that had just elected its first Catholic president, and he described the start of the Vietnam War. He described the women’s liberation movement, and he described the anger over growing violence against non-violent black activists. The March on Washington was born from this anger, and thousands of protestors came together on Aug. 28, 1963, to rally for the civil and economic rights of black people.
Since then, both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have passed, ostensibly righting the wrongs of our history by outlawing racial discrimination. The “I Have A Dream Speech” has become one of the most victorious pleas for action in American history. Freedom reigns, right? Kimberlee Ward, a senior human services major at UNC, begs to disagree.
“Things are still the same, but people don’t really see that or know,” Ward said of race relations in 2013, nearly half a century after discrimination based on color was illegalized.
George expressed similar sentiments, saying that King’s speech was more symbolic than anything and served as a marker in African-American history between the end of legal segregation and “50 years of uncertain progress and real defeats.” He cited segregated neighborhoods and the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy as proof of the struggles that African-Americans still face today.
Shanice Clarke, also a senior human services major at UNC and member of the University Program Council, is another resident of Greeley who thinks about the progress we’ve made toward equality through a critical lens.
“Have we made progress toward making equality a reality? Yes. Has it become a reality? No. Some people in this society with positions of power…stop it from moving forward,” Clarke said. “The early phases of America[n history] perpetuates a lot of this systematic oppression.”
Mass incarceration is a prime example of systematic oppression, according to George, who paraphrased Michelle Alexander’s best-seller “The New Jim Crow” in saying that “there are more black people in prison today than there were slaves in 1850.” In some ways it seems like more steps have been taken backward than forward and, looking at the reality of the situation, the task of finding equality seems a daunting one.
“Will we ever reach equality? We talk about it over and over…but are we really being proactive? The discussion is there; it has been done. What about action?” Ward said. This is a question that I am familiar with, and one that I’m sure many young many black people have to ask themselves at some point. It is hard, though, to know exactly what steps to take when it feels like there are a million and one problems that need fixing. Where do I start? How do I make a difference?
No movement succeeds without organization, in the opinion of George. For the young people who are awakening to the struggle that black people still face today and want to know how to produce real change, he suggests they take a lesson from the leaders of yesteryear. Instead of squabbling over small differences, groups of black activists came together to form a coalition of organizations with a common goal in mind. He advised students to start with the immediate changes that can be made in their own communities, and to branch out from there.