Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark work, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Writing from inside a prison cell, King responded to a group of clergymen who had publicly criticized his campaign against segregation in Birmingham, Ala. Countering the clergymen’s claims that the nonviolent protests were unwise and untimely, King gave a powerful moral justification for the urgent need to intervene in Alabama’s segregationist practices.
One resonating line from King’s letter reads, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
It is important to realize that American injustice is no longer black and white. Injustice exists among socioeconomic classes, New York City boroughs and generations. It thrives in schools, the workplace and the legal system. Given this, to what extent has King’s dream of equality and justice been achieved?
Despite some economic growth in the last 50 years, there is still great disparity between the rich and the poor. This economic stratification is particularly evident in large urban areas. The New Yorker recently created an interactive display of New York City’s income distribution varying by subway lines, which shows the stark contrast in household incomes. The income gap between the highest-earning riders in Manhattan and the lowest-earning in the Bronx and Brooklyn is greater than $100,000.
Aside from economics, there are other policies in place that segregate people and distort justice, such as the New York Police Department’s infamous stop-and-frisk policy. Last month, Kimani Gray, a young black male, was shot and killed by two police officers near his home in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. Although stop-and-frisk did not actively cause Kimani’s death, it certainly contributed to the conditions that enabled this tragedy.
It seems King’s vision has yet to be fulfilled, and his urgent call to action remains neglected.
King once asserted that the arc of history is long but bends toward justice. But of course, we the people must bend that arc toward justice. This task shouldn’t be the prerogative of the next generation but of our own.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, April 16 print edition. Email the WSN editorial board at [email protected]