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Tuesday, Nov 25, 2014
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Is MLK dream a reality 50 years later? Yes and no


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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — When he boarded a Greyhound bus on his way to Princeton University, Glennon Threatt promised himself he'd never come back here. As a young black man, he saw no chance to fulfill his dreams in a city burdened by the ghosts of its segregated past.
Helen Shores Lee left Birmingham years earlier, making the same pledge not to return. A daughter of a prominent civil rights lawyer, she wanted to escape a city tarnished by Jim Crow laws — the "white" and "colored" fountains, the segregated bus seating, the daily indignities she rebelled against as a child.
Both changed their minds. They returned from their self-imposed exile and built successful careers — he as an assistant federal public defender, she as a judge — in a Birmingham transformed by a revolution a half century ago.
This week, as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, there may be no better place than Birmingham to measure the progress that followed the civil rights leader's historic call for racial and economic equality.
This city, after all, is hallowed ground in civil rights history. It was here where children marching for equal rights were jailed, where protesters were attacked by snarling police dogs and battered by high-pressure fire hoses. And it was here where four little girls in their Sunday finest were killed when dynamite planted by Ku Klux Klan members ripped through their church.
That was the Birmingham of the past. The city that King condemned for its "ugly record of brutality." The city where he wrote his impassioned "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," declaring the "moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." The city where the movement came together, found its voice and set the stage for landmark civil rights legislation.
This is the Birmingham of the present: The airport is named after a fearless civil rights champion, the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. The city's website features a 'Fifty Years Forward' campaign, forthrightly displaying photos of shameful events in 1963. Black mayors have occupied City Hall since 1979, in part because many white residents migrated to the suburbs, a familiar pattern in urban America.
So has King's dream of equality been realized here and has Birmingham moved beyond its troubled past?
In many ways, the answer is yes, the city has changed in ways that once seemed unthinkable — and yet, there's also a sense Birmingham still has a long way to go.
Legal and social barriers that barred black people from schools and jobs fell long ago, but economic disparity persists.
Blacks and whites work together and dine side by side in restaurants, but usually don't mingle after 5 p.m.
Racial slurs are rare, but suspicions and tensions remain.
"I don't think any of us would deny that there have been significant changes in Birmingham," Shores Lee says. King would be proud, she adds, but "he would say there's a lot more work to be done."
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"I have a dream that one day down in Alabama. ... little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers ..." — King, Aug. 28, 1963.
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Amid the flowers in Kelly Ingram Park, there are stark reminders of the ugly clashes. It was in this area, now known as the Civil Rights District, where the scenes of police brutality were captured in photos and TV footage that helped galvanize public opinion on behalf of demonstrators.
Today, the park has a statue commemorating King. There's one sculpture of a young protester, his arms stretched back, as a policeman grabs him with one hand and holds a lunging German shepherd in the other. And another of a boy and a girl standing impassively with the words "I Ain't Afraid of your Jail" at the base.
To those who grew up here, these works are not just art, but reminders of the bravery of friends and neighbors.
"It's kind of like being in the movie 'The Sixth Sense' — everywhere you go you see ghosts," Threatt says.
Threatt was just 7 when King announced his vision of a color-blind society before hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the Washington Mall. Not long afterward, Threatt was among three black gifted students enrolled in a white elementary school. He was spat on, beat up, called the N-word.
Now 57, Threatt occasionally runs into a 6th grade classmate — a bank vice president — who'd been among his tormenters. They always have a pleasant chat. But he never forgets.
"I like him," he says. "I don't think he's a racist. He was a kid caught up in a social situation like I was. .... You've got to get over that in order to survive in the South. ... Otherwise you just wallow in self-pity and hatred and you don't move forward."
Threatt graduated from Princeton, then Howard University Law School, worked in Denver and Washington, D.C., but returned to Birmingham in 1997. Both he and the city had changed, he says. He joined an established law firm — something that would have been unimaginable 50 years earlier.
Threatt had been inspired, in part, to be a lawyer by Arthur Shores, a pioneering civil rights attorney who fought to desegregate the University of Alabama. Shores' home was bombed twice in 1963, two weeks apart.
Shores' daughter, Helen, grew up resisting segregation, once drinking from a "white" fountain — a defiant act that resulted in a whipping when she got home. At 12, she aimed a Colt .45 at some white men driving by her family's house, spewing racial obscenities. Her father, she says, hit her arm, the bullet discharged into the air and he quickly grabbed the gun.
She stayed away from Birmingham about 13 years, returned in 1971, later switched careers and in 2003 became a judge.
In her early years on the bench, she recalls, a few lawyers pointedly refused to stand as is custom when a judge enters a courtroom. And, she says, she's occasionally seen lawyers who are disrespectful of their minority clients.
"Racism is still very much alive and well in the South," Shores Lee says. "The actions of men here can be legislated but not their minds and their hearts in terms of how they think and feel about blacks and Hispanics."
The judge says when she gives speeches about voting rights, she sometimes cites her father. "How far have we come if he talked about this 60 plus years ago and I'm still talking about it today?" she asks.
Donna Lidge didn't speak for decades about the pain she endured as a girl. Every morning, her bus would pass an elderly white woman standing on a corner, cursing and making an obscene gesture. Then Lidge would arrive at her predominantly white school, where she and her younger sister were ostracized. "We despised that school," she says.
Lidge said her mother would console them, saying: "'I want you to get an education. That's how you will fight back.'"
That was an era of a white majority and enforced segregation in Birmingham. Today, nearly 75 percent of the population is black. While the overt racism of the 1960s has long disappeared, the issue has not.
James Rotch, a white lawyer, has been addressing it openly since 1998 when he launched the Birmingham Pledge — a program to eliminate racism and prejudice.
The "pledge" has evolved into a foundation with conferences, educational material used around the nation and a special week of events held around the September anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed the four girls.
Not everyone agrees with Rotch's emphasis on race.
"There are a lot of very good, very well-intentioned people who say, 'Look if we stop talking about all this, it'll all go away.' I don't believe that," he says. "...If we pretend it's not there, then we'll never solve it."
In the last 15 years, Rotch says the two races have become more comfortable with one another. And for those 30 and younger, "they really don't understand why anyone would be prejudiced," he says. "They intermingle easily and they just don't see what the big deal is."
Still, there are limits to the socializing.
King's dream is "real during the day" in workplaces and restaurants, says Jim Reed, a white bookstore owner. "When people aren't thinking about it, it's coming true," he says. Once home, however, they aren't inclined to broaden their circles.
"People don't know how to jump that divide," though some would like to, he says. "I see it as taking a long time to get there. Generations have to change."
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"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." — King.
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At the More Than Conquerors Faith Church, Pastor Steve Green preaches to a congregation that couldn't have existed in King's day.
There are graduates of once-segregated universities. A generation of kids comfortable with mixed-race relationships. And people who worked to get out the vote for the nation's first black president.
But there is one constant: Green's congregation is about 90 percent black, a reminder of King's frequently-quoted declaration that 11 a.m. on Sunday is "the most segregated hour of Christian America."
King, the pastor says, would turn to the Bible to explain that 50 years isn't all that long to transform an entire society.
"Being a preacher, I think he would use as the basis the scriptural principle of seedtime and harvest. I think a lot of the seeds have been planted," he says. "They're getting nurtured a little at a time. But I don't think it's harvest time yet."
One congregation member, Chastity McDavid, reflects the change.
Growing up poor in Florida, she says, "I expected prejudice and racism and if it didn't happen, I was pleasantly surprised."
Now she holds a doctoral degree and is a minority health disparity researcher at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
Visiting community centers, sometimes addressing elderly, largely white audiences, as part of her job, McDavid has been on alert for signs of prejudice. What she's generally found, she says, are people who are "accepting, even welcoming."
From childhood on, McDavid, now 35, always participated in celebrations of King's birthday, often at school where someone would recite the dream speech.
"He was the greatest example of how one person could make a difference," she says. "It wasn't so much the speech itself. ... It was what the speech ignited in the people who heard it. I felt I could be anything I want because of Dr. King. Had his dream not been shared, I don't think I would be where I am today."
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"Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" — King.
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One recent summer night, Steve Sills, a member of Green's church, took his two daughters to a rally to motivate young people about the value of respect.
The setting was Kelly Ingram Park.
Sill's older daughter, Makiyah, 12, had studied King in school but she didn't understand the sculptures of vicious dogs and water hoses.
As they drove home, Sills, a computer teacher at a middle school, explained the racial hostilities of that era. He noticed a tear forming in his daughter's eye.
"She couldn't relate," he says. "Her best friends are white. She couldn't imagine it being that way."
Makiyah, he says, then wondered about the need to erect monuments of a painful chapter of America's past.
"Why would they have this as a reminder?" she asked. "It's sad."
"Yes, baby, those were terrible days," he replied, "but through the years we've put those things behind us. ... This is a part of history. It's good to revisit these times to show how far we've come."
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Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer. She can be reached at scohe

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ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - A young protester confronted by a police officer and a snarling police dog is depicted in a sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, there may be no better place than Birmingham to measure the progress that followed the civil rights leader's historic call for racial and economic equality. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 2:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Attorney Glennon Threatt, an assistant federal public defender, sits in his offices in Birmingham, Ala. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. When he boarded a Greyhound bus on his way to Princeton University, he promised himself he'd never come back here. As a young black man, he saw no chance to fulfill his dreams in a city burdened by the ghosts of its segregated past. But he eventually returned from his self-imposed exile and built a successful career. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 3:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this Dec. 26, 1956 file photo, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, center in hat, join white passengers on a city bus in Birmingham, Ala., six days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the buses must integrate. Shuttlesworth boarded hours after a bomb exploded inside his Collegeville, Ala., house. (AP Photo/The Birmingham News, Robert Adams)
<B>Caption 4:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Judge Helen Shores Lee stands in a courtroom in Birmingham, Ala. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. "I don't think any of us would deny that there have been significant changes in Birmingham," Shores Lee says. "I think he (Martin Luther King Jr.) would be proud. ... . . But we still have not reached the point where we have complete equality. He would say there's a lot more work to be done. I think he would tell us our task is not finished." (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 5:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this May 4, 1963 file photo, police lead a group of black school children to jail after their arrest for protesting against racial discrimination near city hall in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Bill Hudson)
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ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Dr. Chastity McDavid stands for a photo in Birmingham, Ala. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. As a child, McDavid, now 35, always participated in celebrations for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. "He was the greatest example of how one person could make a difference," she says. "It wasn't so much the speech itself. ... It was what the speech ignited in the people who heard it. I felt I could be anything I want because of Dr. King. Had his dream not been shared, I don't think I would be where I am today." (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 7:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - This 1977 file photo shows a memorial plaque at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. for Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson, the four girls killed in a bombing at the church in 1963. (AP Photo/The Birmingham News)
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ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this Sept. 15, 1963 file photo, emergency workers and others stand around a large crater from a bomb which killed four black girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. The windows of the building across the street in the background were also blown out. (AP Photo)
<B>Caption 9:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Pastor Steve Green sits in the More Than Conquerors Faith Church in Birmingham, Ala. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. Green preaches to a congregation that couldn't have existed in Martin Luther King Jr.'s day. There are graduates of once-segregated universities. A generation of kids comfortable with mixed race relationships. And political activists who worked to get out the vote for the nation's first black president. It's a remarkable difference from the 1960s and yet there is one constant: the congregation of about 3,500 is about 90 percent black. In that sense, not that much has changed since King once declared it was appalling that 11 a.m. on Sunday morning is "the most segregated hour of Christian America." Green says King would see the push for equality and integration as still evolving and would use the Bible to explain it. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 10:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this May 12, 1963 file photo, police and fire fighters gather near a fire that razed several houses owned by black residents in Birmingham, Ala., one block from a black motel which was bombed and the same distance from a church where civil rights demonstrations started. (AP Photo)
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ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this July 15, 1963 file photo, firefighters use their water hoses against civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Bill Hudson, File)
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ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - A sculpture of a water cannon pointed at protesters stands in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
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ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this May 3, 1963 file photo, Walter Gadsden, 17, defying an anti-parade ordinance of Birmingham, Ala., is attacked by a police dog. (AP Photo/Bill Hudson, File)
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ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - A man walks through a Civil Rights movement sculpture of snarling dogs in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 15:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - A Civil Rights movement sculpture of a boy and girl accompanied by the inscription "I Ain't Afraid Of Your Jail" stands in Kelly Ingram Park on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Birmingham, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 16:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this May 8, 1963 file photo, the Revs. Ralph Abernathy, left, and Martin Luther King, Jr. walk through a corridor of the city jail in Birmingham, Ala., where they were held for several hours following conviction on charges of parading without a permit. They posted bond of $2,500. (AP Photo)
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ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - A monument of Martin Luther King Jr. stands in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 18:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Bob Dickerson, CEO of Foundation Capital, talks in Birmingham, Ala. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013 about how things in the city have changed in the business world since Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech. In the corporate world, there are architects, engineers, doctors and lawyers. But blacks still face disadvantages starting businesses because they have less personal wealth, less access to capital and fewer social networks, says Dickerson, director of the Birmingham Business Resource Center. King would understand the lingering obstacles, he says. "I don’t know that he thought 50 years would be enough time even in a perfect society to take a race of folks who had been slaves and had nothing and grow to have an economic base that would equal," he adds. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 19:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Attorney Jim Rotch sits in his office in Birmingham, Ala. on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2013. Rotch launched the Birmingham Pledge in 1998 - its core mission statement is designed to eliminate racism and prejudice. The pledge itself - which includes declarations such as "I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful" - also has popped up in places ranging from a public bulletin board outside the Taj Mahal in India to a job training center in Connecticut. In the last 15 years, Rotch says the two races have become more comfortable with one another. And for those 30 and younger, he says, "they really don't understand why anyone would be prejudiced. In many cases, they've been thrown together a long time, they intermingle easily and they just don't see what the big deal is." (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 20:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Jefferson County Commissioner, George Bowman, recounts his memories of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013 in his office in Birmingham, Ala. In the political arena, blacks have made huge strides but haven't been able to convert ballot box muscle to economic power, says Bowman, who was a 15-year-old South Carolina kid in the crowd the day of the speech. There are instances where both races "are trying their best to work together to effect some change to show the world that the Birmingham of 2013 is not the Birmingham of 1963," Bowman says. "The rub comes where you look at the plight of the masses and you find that there’s still a vast gap between the haves and the have nots. When you color it by race, it becomes very clear that the masses of the poor," are black, he says, and the handful of people who have amassed the wealth are predominantly white. "That," he said, "is why it hasn’t changed." (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 21:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Homewood Middle School teacher Steve Sills stands for a photo in Birmingham, Ala. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. Earlier in the summer he says his older daughter, Makiyah, 12, who had studied Martin Luther King Jr. in school, didn't understand the sculptures of vicious dogs and water hoses in Kelly Ingram Park. As he was explaining the racial hostilities of that era, he noticed a tear forming in her eye. "She couldn't relate," he says. "Her best friends are white. She couldn't imagine it being that way." Makiyah, he says, then wondered about the need to erect monuments of a painful chapter of America's past. "Why would they have this as a reminder?" she asked. "It's sad." "Yes, baby, those were terrible days," he replied, "but through the years we've put those things behind us. ... This is a part of history. It's good to revisit these times to show how far we've come." (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 22:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - A monument of Martin Luther King Jr. faces the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Kelly Ingram Park on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013, in Birmingham, Ala. It was in this area, now known as the Civil Rights District, where the scenes of police brutality were captured in photos and TV footage that helped galvanize public opinion on behalf of demonstrators five decades ago. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 23:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Isaiah Perry, right, tells the history of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. to tourist Josh Davis, of Lewisville, Texas, at the church on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 24:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - Tourist Josh Davis, of Lewisville, Texas, takes a picture inside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
<B>Caption 25:<B>
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, AUG. 25, 2013 AND THEREAFTER - FILE - In this Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007 file photo, Emmanuel Gunn looks at a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood on display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute during the final stop of an exhibit on the Freedom Ride in Birmingham, Ala. A group from Nashville re-traced the historic civil rights journey from Montgomery, Ala., to Birmingham during the weekend trip. The Freedom Riders started as a small group of 15 volunteers in 1961, but they swelled to a movement of more than 400 during their protests in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia over that year. The black and white volunteers sat together on buses, trains and planes, and staged sit-ins at segregated restaurants, lunch counters and hotels. (AP Photo/Michelle Williams)

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