As Americans mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” African-American history experts in Indiana say there has been progress toward racial equality in the Midwest and nationally, but key issues still need to be addressed.
Valerie Grim, professor of African-American studies at Indiana University, was in diapers in 1963 when King gave his historic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but growing up in rural Mississippi, Grim says she still dealt with racism and the obstacles of being African American.
After moving to Iowa for school, then to Indiana to teach, she says she experienced racism just in a subtler way than what was present in Mississippi.
“In Mississippi, you knew it, nobody masqueraded it,” Grim said. “If people had a problem with the color of your skin they didn’t pretend, so you kind of knew where you stood.”
In the Midwest, she said, it was not as obvious, but still noticeable. Now, as a teacher of history and African-American culture, Grim uses her personal experiences to humanize civil rights issues and continue the conversation today.
“I took the spirit of what my parents taught us and that spirit was that everybody is somebody and everyone deserved to be treated well and we all need to respect each other,” Grim said.
Jakobi Williams, who also teaches African American studies at IU, says the issues presented during the March on Washington in 1963 are still relevant today. He says the Supreme Court decision earlier this summer that declared part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional is a good example of how this history is repeating itself, and there is a simple solution to a lot of these problems.
“We are in desperate need as a nation of compassion,” Williams said.
Grim says 50 years after the national movement, civil rights expands past race. She says the nation needs to focus on clean water, food availability, and good education for children among the many social issues that are keeping us from becoming a great society.
Dr. King and his fellow marchers invoked significant change 50 years ago, and both Grim and Williams will continue with their work to create more change. As a teacher, Grim sees hope for this change with her students, and says they teach her that progress has many obstacles.
“I see a combination of faith and fear,” she said. “I hope things happen in such a way that faith is realized and fear is eroded.”