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Civil rights expert: Despite steps forward, negative impact of America’s racial past still present

Contact: Dan Digmann

​​​​As Martin Luther King Jr. day approaches, America reflects on the important role he played in advancing civil rights.

Central Michigan University history professor and civil rights expert Stephen Jones says although we have come a long way toward a more equal society since the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the negative impact of America's racial past has not entirely disappeared. Jones is available to comment on where we have come as a society since the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Jones offers some initial thoughts below.​

Two steps forward, one step back

"Recent events in places like Staten Island, New York; Ferguson, Missouri; and Cleveland, Ohio signify that we have a long way to go to achieve the dream King spoke of at the March on Washington in 1963.

"For the first time, we have an African-American president and an African-American attorney general, and during the George W. Bush administration we had two African American secretaries of state. Younger generations of Americans born in the last three decades also appear to be less concerned with differences of race than were their counterparts in King's era. All of these are signs of progress.

"The changes, however, have not been as deep as many have imagined. Racist stereotypes — in both words and images — have emerged repeatedly in political attacks on President Obama, and a spate of recent killings of unarmed young black men by police suggest that some police officers may be influenced by negative stereotypes of black men."

Reflecting on the ideals behind King's Dream
"While these highly publicized incidents demonstrate that we are still struggling with deep-seated racist assumptions — assumptions that may not even be conscious in many cases — the nation's growing economic disparities reveal another level on which King's dream remains unfulfilled.

"Our perception of King and his objectives is often warped by the soaring rhetoric and redemptive vision of his famous speech in 1963. He continued working for almost another five years, not just for racial equality, but for economic justice, as well. We should take the time on the MLK holiday to reflect not just on the dream, but also on the ideals behind King's dream."

About Stephen Jones
Jones has been a member of the CMU history department faculty since August 2006. He holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from Michigan State University and is co-author of two documentary histories: "African Americans in Congress" and "Presidents and Black America." Prior to CMU, Jones spent 20 years as a professional journalist and taught for 10 years in  Detroit Public Schools.

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