“I say to you, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.”
– Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream” speech, Aug. 28, 1963, Washington, D.C.
Five decades later, have we moved closer to fulfilling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality?
Yes and no.
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For the first time, African-Americans hold the national offices of president and attorney general. Wichita has a black mayor, police chief, City Council member and an assistant superintendent of schools.
Gone are the signs that said, “Whites only” at restrooms, restaurants and hotels.
“We left that behind,” said Marvin Stone Jr., an 80-year-old African-American who has been active in civil rights efforts for decades in Wichita. “But it’s still there in the unwritten form for employment or whatever.”
King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago and spoke to 250,000 people who came for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, delivering an overarching message about equality and civil rights.
But now, members of the black community say, those rights are being threatened in a more selective fashion, such as in economics, through racial profiling, in the disproportionate number of black people in prison and through restrictive voting laws.
“Dr. King would be horrified by some of the things that are happening in our country,” said Reuben Eckels, pastor at New Day Christian Church and a community leader. “Many of the things he fought for, we’re seeing go backward.”
Black churches were a backbone in King’s civil rights efforts before he was assassinated in 1968, but some leaders say complacency in those churches has caused the dream to stall.
“And then something happens – Trayvon Martin, voting restrictions – and we say, ‘OK, we’re not there yet,’ ” said Wade Moore, pastor at Wichita’s Christian Faith Centre. “We have to have people, leaders in our churches, standing up on issues.”
Timothy Cook, 35, co-owner of a barber shop near 13th and Hillside, said, “The dream is what you make of it. My view of equality is based on how much money you can make.
“As long as you have the ability to secure capital, you can probably make it equal.”
One undeniable legacy of King’s speech is that it allowed people of all colors to think of themselves as people first, said Frances Jackson, presiding elder for Wichita’s African-American Council of Elders.
“It gave them inspiration to receive the fact that they could love themselves and cherish their existence,” she said. “Up to that point, you were constantly questioning whether you could have that kind of respect for yourself because of the negative things that were there.”
“I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations.”
Stone graduated from East High School in 1951. Any time black students used the school’s swimming pool, he said, it was drained and refilled before white students were allowed in the water.
“It was just crazy,” Stone said.
He grew up in Wichita, the oldest of 13 children, and lived in a two-bedroom house.
His father started as a janitor for a jewelry store and later became the city’s only African-American diamond setter at that time.
Stone’s father also had a contract to clean the three downtown theaters, and sometimes Stone would help. But when he attended a movie, he had to sit in the balcony.
“I later learned in my growing-up years that those were the best seats anyway,” Stone said.
When he wrote a senior paper titled “When Will the Sun Come Up?” asking when would he be recognized as a person, he said, “My teacher told me I had a lot of repressed anger and it was going to take time for things to change.”
He got an A on the paper.
Stone graduated from Wichita State University, was a special investigator for what was then called the state’s civil rights commission and worked in the city’s manager’s office.
At the time of King’s speech, though, he was working in the print shop at Steffen’s Dairy.
“His speech gave me encouragement and, yes, reinforced that I am a person,” Stone said. “It was very inspiring.
“I thought we could possibly be on our way and really make a difference. But for every step forward, it’s three steps back. It’s still just a dream.”
He sees daily how elusive the dream is. He sees it as a member of Sedgwick County’s juvenile correction advisory board and as board chairman for the Knox Center, a Wichita substance abuse rehab center.
Even at his age, he said, if he’s on an elevator with a woman, she’ll often clutch her purse tighter.
“Because I’m black,” Stone said. “There’s minimal change.”
Patricia Stone, his wife of almost 55 years, grew up in Wichita as one of 11 children. She was the valedictorian of her senior class in 1955 at the former Planeview High School.
“Even when changes happen, they don’t seem to stay in place,” she said.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a core provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by ruling that a group of mostly Southern states no longer needed to seek the federal government’s approval before changing election practices.
“As an African-American person, everything is stacked against you. And I mean everything,” she said.
In his speech, King called for tearing down those barriers.
Patricia Stone said some African-Americans don’t dare to dream.
“If you’re in circumstances where you are beaten down all the time,” she said, “you accept those circumstances.”
“I have a dream today that one day ... little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.”
Jackson, the presiding elder for the African-American Council, was about to start her second year of teaching in the Wichita school district in 1963 when King delivered his speech.
“At the time, when you went out to public accommodations, it looked like you had to be something totally different to be accepted,” she said. “So when (King) talked about giving yourself credit for being who you were and to see promise in yourself, that was wonderful.”
Wichita had seen historic efforts to make that a reality even before King’s speech.
In 1958, two members of the local NAACP Youth Council led a protest at the Dockum Drugs store, on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway, against black people being denied service at lunch counters. It was believed to be the nation’s first youth-led lunch counter sit-in.
Carrying out King’s dream meant increasing the effort to desegregate schools.
Jackson and Marvin Stone Jr. were on committees to help guide the Wichita school district’s mandated busing that began in 1971 in an attempt to integrate schools. The busing began after Wichita attorney Chester I. Lewis brought multiple civil-rights lawsuits.
Racial balance never fully happened, however.
“We tried to finesse the numbers to make it equitable,” Stone said. “But there weren’t enough black kids to be shipped all over the place. You end up busing white kids in, but they had the option to opt out of it.”
Jackson was initially enthused about the busing.
“However, as time goes on and you see the negative parts of it,” she said, “it’s pretty hard to take.”
Among other things, busing worked against the black students because they were being pulled out of schools where they had a better chance of learning about their heritage, Jackson said.
“That lack of awareness made it that much more difficult to keep the strength that is necessary and valuable in the community,” she said.
In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to assign students to schools based on race. In 2008, Wichita ended mandatory busing for elementary students.
The district has continued busing middle and high school students who live in the “assigned attendance area.” Those students are bused to schools across the district based on their addresses – not race.
But the assigned area is made up of predominantly black neighborhoods. It’s roughly bounded by Central, 29th Street North, I-135 and Hillside.
The four elementary schools in the assigned attendance area have student populations that range from 7 to 15 percent white and 47 to 76 percent black as of last school year, according to state education figures.
Also, as surrounding school districts such as Andover, Goddard and Maize continue to grow, Wichita has seen its student population increasingly dominated by minorities. As of last school year, whites made up 35.1 percent of the students, blacks 18.2, Hispanic 32, multiracial 8.5 and Asian 4.5, according to the Wichita school district.
“Our schools are re-segregating,” said Bonita Gooch, who runs the Community Voice, a biweekly newspaper that targets the black community.
As long as living patterns remain the same with white people still staying largely in white neighborhoods and black people doing the same, she said, true integration of schools remains very difficult.
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Anjela Greer, 51, is a security guard for the Wichita Art Museum. She has a criminal justice degree from Friends University and is working on her master’s degree.
“I’ve heard the speech many times,” Greer said. “I can be anybody I want to be. I still believe that today.
“But I have a lot of people who hate me. I’m to the point that they have to overcome that. I’m fine with who I am.”
The hate comes, she said, in her role as a Navy reservist, not on her job. She served in Kuwait from 2008 to 2010.
“It’s not just that I’m black but that I’m a black woman,” Greer said. “There’s so much jealousy. It doesn’t make sense. If you’re jealous of someone who has more education, then go get an education yourself.”
She said King set in motion a plan for equality.
“But it’s for everyone to follow the route and keep it going,” Greer said. “Sometimes we go backward.”
This weekend, she was part of a busload of people who took the long journey from Wichita to attend Saturday’s rally in Washington, D.C., to kick off several days of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the march and King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Elaine Guillory, 64, organized the trip for the Wichita chapter of the NAACP.
“It’s important to voice our support for civil rights for everybody,” Guillory said. “Many of the same things that were happening in 1963 are happening today.
“My generation got complacent, forgot what the struggle was about. We didn’t pass the baton. We can still keep the dream going, but it takes all of us sitting down and having a serious discussion and listening to each other.”
“ America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
King wasn’t speaking specifically of economics at that point but rather about America not living up to the promises made in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
But economics is at the heart of obstacles that keep his dream from being fulfilled, say those in the black community. The wealth gap between blacks and whites is significant.
According to a study by the Pew Center, a Washington-based nonprofit that researches public issues, the median net worth of white households in 2009 was $113,149, nearly 20 times the $5,677 for black households that same year.
“Families build up wealth usually by passing something on to the next generation,” Gooch said.
But homes – a main source of that wealth – in black neighborhoods aren’t appreciating at nearly the rate of those in white neighborhoods, if at all, she said.
“It’s a race issue,” Gooch said. “We’re always playing catch-up.”
Cook and Shelbert Washington, 41, understand that. They are owner-partners in OG’s International Hair Design, just west of Hillside on 13th Street.
They talk about the obstacles for black men that were first created by slavery.
“They took our manhood back in the day, and they still try to do it,” Cook said. “The way around it is economics. We’re working on the dream because we’re entrepreneurs.
“Blacks are so dependent on others to survive, but this country was built on entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship breaks the cycle.”
But it’s a slow process, Cook said. He and Washington have spent 14 years building their business. Cook was able to buy their building in 2006.
Too many try a quick route to economic success: selling drugs, Cook said.
“And that starts a whole different cycle,” Washington said. “You get busted, go to jail, and the system keeps you in that cycle.”
Cook said, “You can get money the legal way. It just takes longer.”
Cook has seen what happens to those who look for shortcuts. Each Sunday, he goes to Topeka to cut hair at the state’s juvenile corrections complex.
“Some of those kids need to be there,” he said. “I also see kids up there with a lot of potential. A lot made bad decisions. A lot of youths out there have never heard the dream speech.”
Washington said, “It’s just a dream. Not everyone lives by the same dream. It comes down to individual choice, the path people walk on.”
He’s chosen his path.
“I want to leave something for my kids,” Washington said.
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
Eckels, the pastor at New Day Christian Church, said he sees a polarization of the nation brought on by each side trying to dehumanize the other.
“Lines have been drawn,” he said. “If you’re on the right, you’re a racist. If you’re on the left, you’re a socialist.”
Name-calling never helps. That was never part of King’s dream, he said.
“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama ... go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”
King left a blueprint.
“To be successful with that approach,” Jackson said, “we all have to look for ways to heal our communities. We have to figure those things out and constantly be vigilant and remember we are equal as human beings.”
King relied on the black churches and the pastors in those pulpits to help keep his message alive.
“Unfortunately, the church now isn’t playing the same role in social issues as it did in Martin Luther King Jr.’s day,” said Herman Hicks, pastor of Greater Pentecostal Church of God in Christ. “The black church came together from all different denominations to express concerns of their community.
“Today, we’ve become individualized churches. We’re not as involved as we used to be.”
A retired Air Force colonel who grew up Mississippi, Hicks is working on changing that. He took over as president of the Greater Wichita Ministerial League three years ago when only eight or nine pastors belonged.
Now there are about 40 pastors – black and white – and they represent many denominations, he said.
“The No.1 thing is getting pastors to speak up on issues,” he said.
The league also has held meetings with Mayor Carl Brewer, Wichita Police Chief Norman Williams and other city leaders and U.S. Rep. Michael Pompeo to express concerns on various issues, Hicks said.
The state’s voter ID law, which requires proof-of-citizenship documentation to register to vote, has been one of the group’s hottest topics, he said, with some viewing the requirements as barriers to participating at the polls.
Ward, the pastor at Christian Faith Centre, is part of the ministerial league.
“Racial equality is an ongoing fight,” he said. “We’ll have to fight forever. We’re still individuals, but we have to be tied together in working on this.
“If only a few people are sacrificing for people who enjoy the benefits, it’s going to be taxing.”
Gooch, editor of the Community Voice, said it also takes followers to back up the leaders, whether they are church or political leaders.
“They have to know who has their back,” she said.
Hicks said cooperation and collaboration are crucial.
“They have to take place across the community,” he said, “and not just in the black churches and black community. It has to involve all races.
“(King) spoke of the dream, but we haven’t fulfilled it. America has a long way to go.”