On May 6, 1964, 50-years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Bowdoin College about the civil rights movement and the importance of ending segregation and discrimination in America. He set the focus of his speech on the question of whether we are “making any real progress in the area of race relations in our nation.”
Dr. King went on to explain that there were three prevailing attitudes relative to race relations during the civil rights movement. He labeled them as 1) Extreme Optimism – those who felt that meaningful strides had been made and thus concluded that the problem was close to resolved; 2) Extreme Pessimism – those who felt that only minor strides had been made and thus the problem would never be resolved; and the attitude he adopted, 3) Realistic Attitude – those who felt they we had come a long way but there was a long way to go before the problem was solved.
50 years later, it’s easy to see that there are many who still hold these three different attitudes. One needs only look at the recent Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action to see the “Extreme Optimism” side – with the majority of the court essentially stating that racism isn’t a problem anymore and therefore affirmative action isn’t needed. On the flip side, we have the Extreme Pessimists – who see the recent incidents involving Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy’s racist slurs and rants and believe we can never make progress if men like these continue to hold sway with our country.
As a mother of two African American children, I share King’s attitude. While I agree we have come a long, long way from where our nation started, I also believe that we cannot take the “extreme optimist” perspective and conclude that issues of race relations are close to being resolved. This was made intimately clear to my family when, a couple years back, my then 4-year old daughter came home from pre-school and told me that a classmate had told her she could not play with the Play-Doh because she was black. That lesson must have come from that child’s parents or some other adult in her life. To know that these views are still held – and taught – in Maine is disheartening and proof that we do still have a long way to go. While it gave me hope to see the wide public outrage at Donald Sterling’s and Cliven Bundy’s behavior, it is clear we still have more work to do.
As the great Dr. King mentioned in his visit to Maine 50 years ago, “It is one thing for a white person of goodwill in the North to rise up with righteous indignation when a bus burned with Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama . . . A white person of goodwill in the North must rise up with as much righteous indignation when a Negro cannot live in his neighborhood. . . . In short, if this problem is to be solved, there must be a kind of divine discontent all over the nation.” Our outrage at current events in the national news must be combined with our action to ensure equality for all in our own communities. Our work is not yet done.
Karen Bilodeau is an attorney and partner at McTeague Higbee. She represents injured workers in Portland and Lewiston areas.