Martin Luther King's Legacy Remains Alive as African Americans Grapple with New Challenges

It was 46 years ago today that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, spoke passionately about his dreams and hopes for equality in the United States.

And just a year ago, on this day, President Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency. In a historic election, the son of an immigrant went on to become the first African American president in U.S. history.

A picture of Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech.Play
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Today, King's legacy of freedom and justice remains alive and Obama's message of hope continues to inspire young African Americans in a community that, in recent decades, has been seen both progress and challenges.

The evolution of the African American community cannot be "oversimplifed. It's complicated. There's good news and bad news," said Manning Marable, professor of public affairs at Columbia University and director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Black History.

"When Martin Luther King gave his 'I Have a Dream' speech, in Congress there were a total of five black elected officials," he told ABC News. Today, there are "over 40 blacks in Congress and hundreds of mayors of cities are black."

As African American leaders become increasingly prominent in politics and the corporate world, perceptions of African Americans have also changed for the better, perhaps in no small part because of Obama's presidency. In an April New York Times/CBS News poll, 66 percent of Americans said race relations in the United States are generally good.

At the same time, the African American community continues to face its share of challenges, not unlike other minority groups in the United States. At 14.5 percent, unemployment rates for black adults are the highest of any other racial group. Adult literacy rates among blacks, while improving, also remain relatively low. Nearly a quarter of the African American population lives in poverty, and that number has gradually inched up in recent years.

While views of racism as a major problem in American society have dropped sharply from a decade ago, many blacks still report personal experiences of racism and the topic remains controversial, as seen in the debate that was ignited by the arrest of a prominent African American Harvard University professor by a white police office. In a January ABC News/Washington Post poll, barely over one in three said blacks have in fact achieved racial equality, the goal King expressed in his speech in 1963.

"You can have progress and stagnation exist simultaneously," said David Canton, associate professor of history at Connecticut College and director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

"That's the nuance of racial oppression in the country. On the one hand, you have an African American president, on the other hand you have double-digit unemployment and poverty. Both forces exist at the same time," he told ABC News.

Obama's ascension to the White House undoubtedly inspired the African American community. To many who experienced first-hand the civil rights movement, it evoked memories of that era and King's fight for racial equality. Americans across racial lines thought the 2008 campaign would change blacks' self-image for the better and most -- seven in 10, according to a September ABC News/Washington Post poll -- saw Obama's nomination as a sign of broader racial progress.

President Obama and Race

Obama has not shied away from discourse on race -- he addressed the NAACP in June and jumped into the heated issue of whether Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates was racially profiled by Cambridge police. But the president has tried to draw a clear distinction, emphasizing on several occasions that the economy, which is his main focus, affects everyone in this country.

Experts say that's not a bad idea.

"I think that there is among most African Americans, a real understanding of the differences between racial advocacy and leadership of national public policy," said Marable, on whether blacks had higher expectations from the president because of his race. "Barack Obama is the president of the entire United States...so consequently his focus has to be on all Americans, he's not a black leader."

Even King, the slain civil rights leader, Marable said, "was a leader in the fight for racial justice but was not in a narrow sense a black leader advocating solely for the interest of blacks."

Some argue that race had virtually no role to play in Obama's win.

"He won because the stars were aligned, not because of his race," said Sam Fulwood III, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank. "There was a lot of dissatisfaction with the way the country was going. He seemed to be an alternative to more of the same, that was his campaign message and people bought in to it."

Even though there may be no specific expectations of him when it comes to the African American community, many agree that Obama is expected to show positive results in areas of the economy, including poverty, health care, employment and education. At the same time, more national leaders need to emerge to rally for issues that impact African Americans, such as affirmative action.

"Until people in the bottom organize like we saw in the '60's, it will be the same as we have now," Canton said.

Others say the issues today need to be approached differently in the present era than 40 years ago.

"1963 is a long way away from 2009... and the world is very very different," Fulwood told ABC News. "I personally believe it's a mistake to constantly use Dr. King's speech as a touchstone for everything as it affects every black person in this country."

"I think the vast majority of black people who are alive today were not alive then, and to sort of constantly refer to that moment as the defining moment for what it means to be black in America makes about as much sense as it does to ask white people what it means when George Washington was elected," Fulwood added.

No Turning Back

As minority groups across the country deal with issues of economy, scholars say it is by tackling broader issues that the African American community will benefit.

"We have to find ways to address or deal with structural inequality or the absence of wealth creation problems," Marable said. "The two critical issues are health and wealth."

As for leadership, some historians say the gap between classes within African Americans needs to be filled so that a diversity of leaders can emerge.

"Most politicians do go to Ivy League schools, become lawyers, whereas in the civil rights movement, you could work your way up," Canton said. "Now it's about credentials and networking and going to the right school. ... It's more difficult when you don't have the social capital."

Nevertheless, the United States has come a long way from 1963, when segregation was rampant and discrimination was not taboo. The ascension of Obama to the presidency was no doubt a milestone in black history, and African Americans continue to be inspired by his journey.

King's legacy and memory remains alive in the African American community. His portrait still adorns walls of barber shops, churches and schools, but there is also recognition that the community must move ahead.

"He was without question the essential personality of black America in the 21st century, and there is a recognition that Martin Luther King sacrificed his life in order for us to move forward collectively," Marable said. "But people also understand the issues he fought are not the issues we fight today. It requires a new kind of leadership."