What speech would King give today?

Phil: I clearly remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream Speech.” For me it was one of the most transformational speeches in American history.

Ethan: Are you really that old? I wonder what speech he would give today.

Phil: I expect he would talk about the progress we’ve made toward eliminating racial bias.

Ethan: Certainly. But I am also sure he would be saddened at how far we still have to go.

Phil: We can always improve, but the fact that we now have a black president tells us more than any other statistic might.

Ethan: It is true that America broke a thick glass ceiling in electing President Barack Obama, yet it pales in comparison to the economic divide that still confronts communities of color in America. As Obama said this week, “For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?” I am sure this would be the focus of a King speech today.

Phil: It seems to me that we’ve all lost sight of King’s proclamation that children should be judged by the content of their character. Instead civil rights leaders today talk about voting rights and more government programs, almost never about personal responsibility.

Ethan: King spoke forcefully about voting rights and about government investment in the poor. I expect he would side with those frustrated that the Supreme Court gutted the voting rights act and that the war on poverty was decimated from President Richard Nixon on forward.

Phil: Really? Nixon is responsible for today’s poverty?

Ethan: Nixon began the ideological shift away from government investment in the communities of those trapped in generational poverty. That shift was more fully realized under President Ronald Reagan, but by 1973 it had begun. The steady decline in poverty rates we had seen the decade prior ceased and began rising again. The rate hit a low of 11.1% in 1973 and then steadily rose back up over 15% at the end of the Bush/Reagan era.

Phil: How about this perspective? The facts show that 72 percent of African-American children today are born by unwed mothers. As a father of three children, I know how challenging it is to raise children with two engaged parents. How does a single mom do it? Where are the fathers? Don’t you think this has a profound impact on poverty, crime and educational aspirations?

Ethan: The lack of income for a single parent certainly has an impact on one’s poverty, but that’s why supports are needed. I was raised by a single mother until I was 11 and then a single father through high school. Both fell on hard times, and we needed food stamps/unemployment/rent control/free school lunch to survive. Those supports were critical in helping me build a stable life that is far from impoverished.

Phil: You are my brother from another mother in this regard! My parents are disabled, and they divorced by the time I was 13. While I was shuffled between their new lives, the message from both was clear: Go to school; you need to work, obey the law and take responsibility for your direction. It was hard, yet it shaped who I am. Government programs are not going to substitute for family setting examples and expectations.

Ethan: Certainly, but almost all single mothers I know set similar expectations to what your parents set. Opportunity must also be present. King understood this. By the end of his life he saw that the economic divide was doing as much damage to the poor as racism was doing to people of color. We are holding people back based on the economics of their birth.

Phil: Their fathers’ abandonment is setting them back, not the government.

Ethan: You want government to mandate the father back into the house?

Phil: I am not mandating more government involvement. I am saying government involvement has helped create the problem. When the war on poverty began in 1963, only 24 percent of African-American mothers were unwed. In 2008 it was 72 percent. Even you must agree there is a correlation between poverty and family breakdown.

Ethan: I do, but I see poverty as the cause, and the breakup as the symptom. Did you know that the 1963 March was actually called “the march for freedom and jobs”? King said, “We called our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we felt that the economic question was the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, were confronting.”

Phil: I see this as a crisis for the children. You see this as a need for more government.

Ethan: I do see it as a crisis for the children, and that’s why I believe the government must intervene. What’s your solution? End food stamps and pre-k? I am quite sure King would disagree with you there.

Phil: As transformational as King was, so too could be Obama. He should take his bus tour to every inner city in America, speak to the fathers, and motivate them to be like him.

Ethan: If King heard that our government’s response to the economic divide was to tell black men it is their fault that our children are poor, I am quite sure today’s speech would be much angrier than the one he gave 50 years ago.

Phil: Either way, I wish he were still alive to give it.