MLK Day: It’s Time for a Second Emancipation Proclamation

Segregation is as much of a problem for the U.S. as it was 40 years ago. Is it time to reprise Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision?

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U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. waves to supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963

As we prepare to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., we should be cautious about congratulating ourselves for having overcome segregation and the resultant inequality against which King is best known for fighting. Indeed, the problems of racial segregation in housing and education are no less urgent than they were 40 years ago.

(MORE: Michelle Alexander on the Myth of Desegregation)

study published this past May in the American Sociological Review shows that today, blacks and whites overwhelmingly live in neighborhoods with members of their own race. Though they do so by choice, this is still problematic because, as a 2011 study from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found, in the cities with such high levels of racial segregation, blacks and Latinos live far shorter lives than whites and are much more prone to long-term health problems, like asthma, due to higher pollution levels.

The picture is no brighter in public schools, as a report issued in September by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows. It found that school segregation for blacks, Latinos and poor students has returned to levels we haven’t seen since the 1970s. And we know from 30 years’ worth of research that test scores and college-level success are far lower for students who attend racially segregated schools. Nonetheless, in our present moment, 60% to 80% of districts in major metropolitan areas like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Dallas have schools that are overwhelmingly segregated by race.

A recent article in the New York Times looking at racial segregation in the gifted-and-talented program in New York City makes the consequences for such levels of segregation in education clear. The Times found that “accelerated classrooms serve as pipelines to the city’s highest-achievement middle schools and high schools, creating a cycle in which students who start out ahead get even further advantages from the city’s schools.”

(MORE: In the Name of King)

This type of inequality does not have to last if we have the will to eradicate it. Fifty years ago, on the 100th anniversary of the original Emancipation Proclamation, King asked President Kennedy to sign a second proclamation. King wanted the President to use the full power of his office to eliminate all forms of segregation and make discrimination illegal. He also wanted the government to oppose any efforts to allow the country to re-segregate by race. As King said at a June 1961 press conference about his proposal, “Just as Abraham Lincoln had the vision to see almost 100 years ago that this nation could not exist half-free, the present administration must have the insight to see that today the nation cannot exist half-segregated and half-free.”

President Kennedy considered it but ultimately declined to sign such an Executive Order. But King’s sentiment is no less true for us today. This year, as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we should reconsider King’s idea of a second proclamation. In it, we could offer incentives to those willing to find creative solutions for breaking a cycle of racial segregation in housing and especially education that has gone on for far too long. If we are successful, we would complete the work to which King dedicated his life.

PHOTOS: Martin Luther King Jr. in His Own Words