Dreams die hard

Thirty-seven years after Martin Luther King's stirring `I have a dream' speech, problems remain for African-Americans. SRIDHAR KRISHNASWAMI on the `Redeem the dream' rally.

THIRTY-SEVEN years ago, the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference challenged the conscience of America. The setting at the time was the Lincoln Memorial where more than a quarter of a million protestors came to hear the veteran civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., give his stirring ``I have a Dream'' speech. The issue was the treatment of African- Americans many of whom were denied the right to vote.

Thirty-seven years later, it was different setting. But just because the crowd was smaller than in 1963, it did not take away either the symbolism or the meaning of the gathering. At the Lincoln Memorial on August 26, 2000, the son of Martin Luther King Jr. brought up his father's call to America's conscience and said ``I dare you to fulfill the dream''.

The ``Redeem the Dream'' event was more focussed. It was intended to highlight some of the immediate problems that Blacks in the United States are facing - racial profiling and police brutality.

The fact that African-Americans have come a long way does not mean that the distance has been fully covered or that society is without problems.

``The day my father dreamed about has not yet been realised in our leading institutions, nor in our employment offices, nor even in our nation's courtrooms,'' said Mr. Martin Luther King III who went on: ``A black man can walk over a bridge, but he cannot drive over it without being stopped''.

The African-American leaders of today are focussing not just on representation for the community in the political system. In fact, much of the focus and concern has been on the larger aspects of the system and the community as it related to the basic rights of a human being, especially the development of the individual.

Racial profiling is one of the many challenges facing African- Americans and the community's leaders basically want the Administration and Congress to outlaw the practice of some law enforcement agencies to stop and question people based on the colour of their skin.

In fact, at least one outspoken leader, the Rev. Al Sharpton, has called on Presidential candidates, Mr. George Bush and Mr. Al Gore, to pledge their support for the cause. ``Both of you are running for President, but you can't run from us. If you want us, you have to come to us and address our concerns,'' Mr. Sharpton said at the August 26 rally.

One of Martin Luther King's legacies is the continuing fight for equality and justice; and this time around the African-Americans and other immigrant minorities in the U.S. are closing ranks to fight what they see as systematic and determined efforts by the enforcement agencies to target them, the only reason being their colour.

African-American leaders are pressuring the Administration and Congress to cut off funding for any local or State law enforcement agency that has a pattern of brutality or racial profiling.

Police brutality is not merely seen in the red-neck back alleys or hick counties of rural America. It could happen even in such fancy cities as Philadelphia, New York or even Los Angeles. Remember Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant who was brutalised and sodomised with a broom in a New York police station in 1997?

Remember Amadou Diallo who was felled by 19 police bullets in 1999? Police said that they shot because they feared Diallou was reaching for a gun - they only found a wallet instead.

To single out New York would be unfair. But the city has earned notoriety for what has taken place over the last three years. Black leaders have been pressing for the city's police department to be placed under federal watch.

What blacks and others have been saying for a quite a long time is that effort must be made to speed up the process of converting words into deeds; and that a tougher stance must be taken in the law books.

For instance, the President, Mr. Bill Clinton, signed an executive order last year asking the Justice Department to collect data on racial profiling. But, African-Americans are saying that time has come to put the data to use. ``A toothless tiger is not going to scare anyone,'' says Rev. Sharpton.

In an election year, there is no denying that the ``Redeem the Dream'' rally was intended to galvanise not just the African- American voters but also to put politicians and elected officials on notice. African-American leaders are not at all convinced that prejudices - and even hate - are a thing of the past. That hate continues to be a factor in crimes against African-Americans is well documented; and the Clinton Administration has repeatedly been urging Congress to pass hate crime laws.

The bottom line has always been that a country registers no moral progress or development if the baser instincts such as hate are allowed to go unpunished.

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