Asbury Park Press
January 17, 2010

Efforts urged to achieve full equality

Prejudice remains despite King, Obama


Barack Obama's election proved the United States had moved beyond race and achieved Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a nation without prejudice, J. Michael Rush recalls hearing people say last year.

Not quite, say Rush and other African American leaders in the region. They argue that in the United States , a systemic discrimination toward people of different backgrounds continues to exist. Unequal access to receiving a quality education and earning a well-paying job are still part of the American reality, they say.

"The world has come so far, but we can't stop just because there is a black man in the White House," said Rush, a former assistant commissioner in the state Department of Education. "The dream has not been fulfilled."

King is often memorialized for wanting people to be judged by their character, not by their skin color. Obama's achievement may help make the dream come true in the long run, Carl F. Jennings said. But in the short run, people should only expect so much change, said the chairman of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Guild of Greater Long Branch.

"The man has only been in office for a year," said Jennings , who believes Obama's presidency gives hope to a future round of leaders, only growing up now. "A lot of young people striving to find role models now know that if they work hard, someone like them can become president."

For decades, African Americans have held various stepping-stone positions of power in the United States , serving as mayors, senators and business leaders, said Beryl Richardson, a member of the Martin Luther King Committee, a community organization based in northern Monmouth County .

"You don't just jump into the White House," said Richardson, who believes it is difficult to overestimate the groundwork that Obama's presidency lays toward achieving King's goals. "(Obama) is not the end. He is the beginning."

In the last years before his death, King increasingly focused his attention on fighting for economic equality, arguing that many communities in the country were systematically kept from access to well-paying jobs, a quality education and equal levels of health care.

By setting the improvement of the nation's health care system as one of his first policy goals, Obama is also seeking to better the nation's human rights record, advocating for a type of change not commonly associated with King, Richardson said.

"For a lot of people, King begins and ends with his "I Have A Dream' speech,' " Richardson said. " But Dr. King was about a lot more than one speech."

Earl Thomas Teasley, chairman of the Monmouth County Human Relations Commission, also cites Obama's work on health care during his first year in office as a positive contribution toward fulfilling King's legacy.

"This past year has shown that the dream is still alive," Teasley said. "A healthy nation certainly should be an important goal for humanity."

But Teasley cautions that much work remains to be done before prejudice and inequality in the United States can be spoken of in the past tense. Women often receive less pay than men, immigrants face discrimination from American natives, the disabled often do not have adequate access to buildings and other locations, and gays and lesbian couples do not have the same rights that straight couples do, he said.

"Evening out the playing ground for everyone," Teasley said. "That's what really is going to help us fulfill Dr. King's legacy."