Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 50 years Later

Detroit Free Press

By Michael Layne

By most standards I am a product of privilege. I grew up in a solid middle-class family headed by a stable father and mother and attended quality public schools in the 1950s and 1960s.

I never went a day hungry or cold, and from my early teenage years was always able to obtain part-time employment that enabled me to save money for fun and college.

As a child I vividly remember the mason wall that was constructed to separate my well-to-do Oakland County subdivision from the poor African American children on the other side of Eight Mile who were bussed to the middle school I attended. I was 13 years old when Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. So, I came of age during the Civil Rights movement and even as a youngster and throughout high school, I felt strongly attached with those who believed in, and fought for, equal rights for all Americans.

The vision that MLK Jr. so eloquently expounded more than 50 years ago still rings true today. The great disparities in income, education, public safety, protection from environmental pollutants, and other vestiges of institutionalized racism that existed then remain prevalent.

Clearly, not all children in Michigan, and nationwide, have access to quality education that will enable them to be gainfully employed and productive citizens. Children growing up in poor urban areas are at an immediate disadvantage as they receive substandard educations that preclude them from competing in our global economy. Unemployment leads to disfranchisement and the symptoms of desperation like alcoholism, drug abuse, broken families and incarceration. We have created a ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ where young black males are incarcerated in increasingly greater numbers instead of being nurtured, encouraged and educated.

So today, nearly 47 years after the tragic death of Martin Luther King, Jr., as an adult now in my mid 60s, I remain as dedicated to the fight for equal rights as I was as an idealistic youth. Now, as the owner of Marx Layne & Company, a Detroit-based public relations agency, along with the full support of members of my agency, I am able to give back to the many causes that support those in need and equal opportunity.

I marvel at the lack of empathy that seems to have hardened in the American psyche and when I pass a homeless individual begging for spare change along a frozen Freeway entry ramp as I leave Detroit heading to suburbia, I can only think, “but for the grace of God go I.”

Since the tragic death of MLK we appear to have become a nation of people only interested in helping a very narrow group who must either look like us, share the same religious beliefs as us, or the same ethnicities as us. I fear that if MLK could see how us now, he would wonder in sadness and anger ‘What happened?’

Yes, there has been progress. Countless numbers of formerly disadvantaged individuals have fought their way to success. Still, our society continues to promulgate the hidden agenda of institutionalized racism that has been at the core of our country since long before its foundation. Those effects still resonate and have an impact on minorities.

I will continue to believe in the cause that MLK stood for, but until we as Americans treat each child as our own, each senior citizen as our own, and provide the tools and the education that every person needs to flourish, I am not so sure we have come much further since the day MLK stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963 with his words that defined that Civil Rights Movement, “I have a dream.”

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