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Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd he captivated at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963: ‘Somehow’ he declared, ‘this situation can and will be changed.’ (Associated Press)
Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd he captivated at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963: ‘Somehow’ he declared, ‘this situation can and will be changed.’ (Associated Press)

They had a dream: three people who were inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Add to ...

Frankye Adams-Johnson lives in a bungalow on a quiet cul-de-sac in the northern part of Jackson, the capital of Mississippi. The green yard and towering trees behind her home hum with the sound of cicadas. The forest reminds her of where she grew up, in a rural hamlet set so far back in the woods that people liked to say you had to poke your way in and hunt your way out.

Fifty years ago, she was about to start her last year of high school, but she missed the first day of class. She was in court to face charges for marching in a civil-rights demonstration. It was one of her several arrests – and jail spells – over that long, hot summer, a time of growing protests and increasingly violent reprisals.

The highlight of the summer was a bus journey to the nation’s capital – her first trip outside Mississippi – for what was officially called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She was greeted by more people than she had ever seen: a quarter of a million. On the return trip, she remembers a palpable sense of liberation. “I felt that somehow we had achieved whatever this freedom meant, that it had been achieved there in Washington,” says Ms. Johnson, now 67. “We had marched, we had listened to speeches, and we had been moved by the great Martin Luther King, Jr. … There was no question that we could come back here and sit at a separate anything.”

Five decades later, the March on Washington is remembered most for the speech Dr. King delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, and its indelible concluding refrain: “I have a dream.” Yet that soaring rhetoric tends to obscure the fact that his speech was not just a statement of aspiration but a concrete call to action.

“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed,” he declared.

Many did just that. Ms. Johnson returned to Mississippi, the poorest U.S. state, and the one with the highest percentage (37) of African Americans. So, too, did Ineva May-Pittman, a 29-year-old teacher from Jackson. Before long, they were followed by Owen Brooks, who was 35 that summer, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designing radar for the military.

They have taken part in a hard and uncertain struggle for equality, and now, a half-century later, offer a unique perspective on the progress it has – and has not – achieved. They never dreamed they would see an African American as president. But they hoped for greater success in eradicating social and economic inequalities, which have proved tenacious.

Recent months have delivered fresh defeats: the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager who seemingly aroused suspicion just because of the colour of his skin; and a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate a key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – legislation passed in the wake of Dr. King’s Washington triumph.“It’s a complicated picture,” says Michael Klarman, a legal historian and constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School. “We pretty much obliterated Jim Crow laws” – which enforced segregation – “and restrictions on voting rights. On the other hand, we still have all of these vast differences.”

Prof. Klarman sees a contrast between formal equality and something more substantive. A black person in the United States is “more likely to die early, get sick, get incarcerated, drop out of high school, and be unemployed” than a white counterpart, he notes. The black poverty rate is nearly three times that of whites; the homicide rate involving firearms is 10 times higher.

Much good has come on other fronts. The civil rights movement inspired a wider struggle for human rights that has benefited women, gays and other minority groups. But sitting in her living room, surrounded by family photos, Ms. Johnson can’t help feeling disappointed. “I envisioned that our quality of life as an African-American people … would be better for more of us than the handful that it is,” she says. “I don’t want to put a damper on celebrating and commemorating. But I will just say there’s still so much more we need to be fighting for.”

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