The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. died 44 years ago, yet the problems that compelled the civil rights leader to dream of a better America persist today, Joycelyn Elders told a Kansas City audience recently.
Her thoughts need amplifying for Black History Month. For people of color, those problems include a segregated and inferior system of education, a poor and unequal health care system, homicides that disproportionately affect minorities and a deficient system of public transportation limiting access to jobs. King’s dream was for those things and more to have improved by now, said Elders, who in the 1993 was the first African-American U.S. surgeon general.
An assassin killed the dreamer in 1968, leaving his work undone. It’s why the towering monument on the National Mall for King should stand as a civil rights marker in America’s continuing journey to live up to its high ideals of justice, freedom, liberty, equality and opportunity for all, not a select few.
“King left a huge unfinished agenda,” Elders said. “We need to get busy to do it. We still have a lot to do.
“But we have a rather large problem with education.”
She could have been talking about Kansas City Public Schools. Elders said the nation has too many dropouts.
And too many high school graduates can’t read.
“Their shoes light up when they walk, but their brains go dead when they talk,” she said.
In health care, Elders said, the U.S. ranks near the bottom among developed nations. It’s the best for people who have health insurance and money, but terrible in providing quality health care for all.
“It costs too much and delivers too little,” Elders said. “We’ve got to make sure we have a health care system that reaches everybody. We can do better and we must do better.”
Elders criticized the aimlessness of many young African-American men who are without jobs and hang out on street corners with their pants riding so low that their underwear is exposed. They need to be in schools, at work or actively pursuing jobs. King wouldn’t want anything less.
Idleness is unacceptable when blacks make up close to 13 percent of the population, but only 3 percent of the nation’s doctors.
“If we want equity in health care, we need to get young men off the street and into school,” Elders said.
Improving education is the answer to many of the nation’s ills and would help create the beloved community that King wanted, Elders said.
“Sometimes we do things because we don’t know better,” she said. “That’s called ignorance. Knowing better and doing it anyway is called stupidity. Ignorance is cured with a good education. Stupidity lasts forever.”
Underfunding schools is stupid. Racism, sexism, homophobia and elitism are stupid. Yet the country is stuck there despite King’s dream of greater possibilities.
Elders called on Kansas Citians to lead in shaking the country loose from the status quo and complacency. She said people have to see that the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as the first black president is not enough.
People of color need better public transportation and better access to capital and not payday loans. Elders encouraged people to prepare themselves to force change as King did. People will need a unified, determined boldness.
She said folks who attempt to make changes to improve living conditions for people of color need to be prepared to encounter “ABC leaders.” Those are people who accuse, blame and criticize.
Elders said that to achieve King’s dreams, people — especially young people — have to follow the three “L’s” of leadership: “listen” to what people want, “learn” what they really need and then “lead” folks to where they want to go.
“The future of our young people in this nation is at stake,” Elders said.
King knew that, which is why he dreamed. The rest of the country needs to wake up and begin the long journey that King and many other heroes started.