The Words of Martin Luther King, a collection of his speeches and writings, selected by Coretta Scott King, contains this illustrative passage:
“Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disadvantaged black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.
“When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate healthcare — each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct. Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost to society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms. This fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were obtained at bargain rates. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black public officials.”
I imagine it’s very uncomfortable for a lot of people — black, white, and Asian — to read these words, especially today. As we celebrate his sacrifice on Martin Luther King Day, his words remind us just how far we are from living his dream. No doubt King would be happy to see President Barack Obama inaugurated again today. But I doubt King would be placated by the existence of what he called a “few black public officials.”