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

Community has been marked by both progress and stagnation in last 46 years.

ByABC News
August 27, 2009, 3:16 PM

Aug. 28, 2009— -- 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.

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.