News your connection to The Boston Globe

Martin Luther King's unfinished legacy

THE REV. MARTIN Luther King Jr. has become one of America's "founding brothers." We celebrate his life as a man who shaped the nation's life as few others have.


Racial progress is a train that left the station decades ago, driven in great part by King during his too-brief life. And much has been accomplished. It's easy to forget just how much.

Traveling in the South in the early 1940s, the great Swedish writer Gunnar Myrdal was appalled to learn that any white could "strike or beat a Negro, steal or destroy his property, cheat him in a transaction and even take his life without much fear of legal reprisal." Black people, he discovered, were "excluded not only from the white man's society but also from the ordinary symbols of respect." It would have been a major violation of the social order to address a black woman as "Mrs. Washington" -- "Mrs." being a term reserved for whites. Few African-Americans could vote, and blacks and whites were kept apart on streetcars, buses, and railroads as well as in schools, waiting rooms, restaurants, hotels, boardinghouses, theaters, cemeteries, parks, courtrooms, public toilets -- and every other public space.

In the North the picture was better, yet a color line kept blacks out of the best-paying and most desirable jobs, the better restaurants, most "white" neighborhoods, and therefore "white" schools. In fact, some states allowed local communities to operate dual educational systems. Remember, Brown v. Board of Education involved segregated schools in Topeka, Kan.

The curtain came down on the Jim Crow South in the 1950s and 1960s, in great part due to the movement that King led. The civil rights revolution changed hearts and minds as well as the law. By 1972 there was almost no dissent -- even in the South -- from the notion that whites and blacks should have an equal opportunity to get "any kind of job." By that year, 84 percent of whites agreed that black and white students should attend the same schools.

The status of African-Americans today is radically different than it was a half century ago, when almost 90 percent of blacks lived in poverty. By now more than 40 percent of blacks describe themselves as middle class, and a third live in suburbs. College attendance rates are as high as those for whites -- although a high percentage drop out before getting a four-year degree. African-Americans are CEOs and occupy lofty positions in the federal government. The good news is too little acknowledged or even understood.

But all is not well, as everyone knows. Many will point to persistent black poverty, to the number of black children born to young and unmarried women, to incarceration rates for black men, and other discouraging facts. But the most discouraging news of all is that which has been barely discussed until very recently: the appalling racial gap in academic achievement in the K-12 years.

That gap between whites and Asians on the one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the other is the main source of ongoing racial inequality. Students who have equal skills and knowledge -- whatever their color -- will have roughly equal earnings. That was not true yesterday. It is today. Schooling has become the key to racial equality.

Here's a brief glimpse of the racial gap in skills and knowledge:

On the nation's most reliable tests -- the National Assessment for Educational Progress -- the typical black or Hispanic student at age 17 is scoring less well than at least 80 percent of his or her white classmates. On average, these non-Asian minority students are four years behind those who are white and Asian. They are finishing high school with a junior high education. Thus the employer hiring the typical black high school graduate (or the college that admits the average black student) is in effect choosing a youngster who has made it only through eighth grade.

In five of the seven subjects tested by NAEP, a majority of black students perform in the lowest category -- Below Basic. And very few score at the top of the NAEP scale. In math, for instance, only 0.2 percent of black students fall into the Advanced category; the figure for whites is 11 times higher and for Asians 37 times higher. Again, Hispanic students are only slightly ahead of blacks. The racial gap in academic achievement is an educational crisis. But it is also the nation's most important civil rights issue. King's work remains unfinished. It's time to join a new crusade -- one dedicated to changing American education in ways that will truly create a level playing field. Tinkering around the edges of school reform will not do. We still need desperately the radical and imaginative leadership that King once so brilliantly provided.

Abigail Thernstrom is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and co-author of "No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning."

Globe Archives
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months