As the nation prepares to celebrate the dream of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, the reality is that the dream is not yet realized, and may in fact be stalled decades after the iconic speech that framed the civil rights movement in the United States.
Roughly 52 years after King delivered his speech to America, the country still faces racial and social injustices — ones that have been compared to the events that unfolded before Americans' eyes on the nightly news in the '60s — as news of another black-versus-white or black-versus-police controversy is delivered to smartphones and replayed on social media, demanding the nation's attention.
The past two years have been held up as testament to America's failure to resolve racial tensions between minorities and law enforcement.
To name a few, Americans witnessed the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager from Ferguson, Missouri, who was killed by police officer Darren Wilson, and the death of Freddie Gray, a Baltimore man who was fatally injured while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department. America also witnessed the riots that ensued following the deaths of Brown and Gray.
Most recently, the country is reeling from released dashboard camera video depicting the 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald at the hands of the Chicago Police Department, and the decision by an Ohio grand jury not to indict the officers involved in the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was killed outside of a Cleveland recreation center after video footage showed the boy to be in possession of a toy gun.
"Ferguson has reminded folks of the continuing legacy of racism and discrimination in the U.S.," said Keith Green, director of Africana studies and associate professor of English at Rutgers University in Camden. "In the age of Obama, people have an increased tendency to feel as if racial inequality is no longer a priority."
But there is work to be done, and community leaders, educators and students are looking to King's legacy for guidance in uncertain times. There is a lot to be learned, they said.
"If we continue to remember why he came, lived and died, we recognize there is still some work to be done," said the Rev. Danny Scotton of the Alpha Baptist Church in Willingboro, who was set to address a commemorative MLK event Saturday in Cinnaminson. "He had a dream, and I don't think that's a reality at this point."
In 1963, King stood at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, which continues to resonate with citizens from coast to coast. He urged Americans to take on his mantra of judging someone by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin.
King would have been 87 on his Jan. 15 birthday this year. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968, at age 39.
"I think it's important that we take time to recognize Dr. King's sacrifice and service as a reminder to everyone that his efforts should not be in vain, and we should be doing the work to sustain his dream," said Crystal D. Charley, president of the Southern Burlington County chapter of the NAACP.
The chapter is working to bridge the community and law enforcement amid national tensions and hopes to build ongoing relationships with local police forces to prevent problems here, like those that have been captured elsewhere in the country. Charley said it's important that groups like the NAACP have a seat at the table with regard to community concerns.
That seat at the table is essential, experts said. Like the civil rights movement before it, the recent campaigns, such as "Black Lives Matter," will not be ignored or silenced, they said. Unlike in the 1960s, this movement has the benefit and power of social media to carry it quickly to the masses.
"This also gives people who otherwise wouldn’t have the access an opportunity to have a platform to voice his/her opinions," said Rutgers University's Oscar Holmes IV, an assistant professor of management. "Additionally, with respect to the Black Lives Matter movement, there is a change toward more shared leadership in the movement instead of having a few 'stars' of the movement to lead it, like we had with Dr. Martin Luther King and his peers during his time period."
The images like those out of Ferguson, where violence erupted in the wake of Brown's death, can prove to be shocking and disturbing to some, but it shouldn't be, Green said.
Racism: 'As American as apple pie'
"Every time America’s painful racial history erupts, people are surprised," he said. "It’s time for us to stop being surprised and recognize that racism is as American as apple pie and will not go away by itself."
Reflecting on how King's legacy is being carried out today, Holmes said there are certainly many people who are fighting for his dream and ideals.
"But unfortunately, we haven’t made as much progress as I think he would have wanted or expected," he said. "In fact, in some areas we have gotten worse."
He and others cite the disproportionate number of minorities incarcerated and economic inequality as some of the most significant hurdles.
But there are many ways to fight racism at its root. Breaking systemic discrimination at a number of "important access points," Holmes said, is a positive start.
They include improving educational and employment opportunities and increasing access to loans for homes and businesses. Criminal justice reforms are also necessary, the educators said.
The NAACP's Charley said it's important for all to become involved in the community, "engage with our elected officials," and take a "proactive approach to community restoration instead of a reactive approach." She said those steps are key to moving civil rights and equality forward.
Empowering young people is another key.
Saidah Hart, a Spanish teacher at Lenape High School and the Medford school's African American Club adviser, works every day to do that, but can't help but be concerned with the images, messages and news that bombard her students.
"We're at a very delicate time in race relations," Hart said as she helped the club prepare for its annual March for Martin, commemorating Martin Luther King Day. She hopes education and perspective will help them discern the times they live in.
"I want these kids to know that these are the same messages that were used in the past to break down and divide people," Hart said. "So if they're aware of the ugliness that was in the world before they got here, then hopefully we can start pushing it out and come together."
Student Myles Penny said discussions about race and social justice, and what he and classmates find on their unfiltered social media feeds, are helpful. The junior is not too young to understand King's decades-old message.
At 16, he worries about what will happen if the country doesn't embrace it.
Myles is concerned about young men being "victims of senseless brutality." Other students said they worry about stereotypes that are used to define the races. They said more needs to be done to promote acceptance and tolerance.
"I think it's getting to a tipping point, and I think it's just a matter of time before something really, really bad happens," Myles said. "We need to definitely start making some changes."
There are no easy answers
Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, agreed that the United States is at a "crossroads" in race relations.
"It is important that we continue to break through the barriers and the rhetoric that seek to divide us along racial lines, so that we can move our country towards that more perfect union we hope for it to become," he said.
Educators and community leaders said King's legacy gives the nation some of the tools it needs to spur that change, but challenges will remain. There are no easy answers, they said.
Green said King's legacy is his commitment to proactive social change.
"Dr. King knew that time doesn’t heal all wounds and that in order to challenge the status quo, you have to be comfortable with making people uncomfortable," he said.
It's also important to recognize progress when looking at race in America.
"An improvement would be the continued increase in the number of racial minorities who are graduating high school and obtaining collegiate and postgraduate education," Holmes said. "Additionally, an improvement is in the expanded employment opportunities that are available and are opening up for racial minorities that were not available in Martin Luther King's time."
Hart sees progress in her classroom every day and despite continuing challenges, she remains hopeful. She said she sees the fruits of King's labor every day.
"I can walk into a classroom or a group of students at lunch and I can look and see this big melting pot. It really brings joy to me," Hart said.
She said the march her students organized is an important and powerful reminder.
"I tell the students, 'I wouldn't be standing in front of you as a teacher, you wouldn't have some of the relationships you have with your classmates or teachers, if it were not for Martin Luther King's dream,' " she said.
The lessons and legacy of King seem to be resonating over the tough times the nation has confronted in recent years. Penny, a member of Lenape's African American Club who will take part in the school's MLK march this week, strips the issues down to King's historic message.
"I feel we are doomed to recreate a very negative part of our American history if we do not take a very deep and honest look at where we are right now," the teen said. "It's not always black and white, but it's always what is right and what is wrong."