It’s been almost 60 years since Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of throngs of people on the National Mall.
This Wednesday, on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in as president and vice president.
Normally there would be huge crowds there to celebrate the peaceful transition of power. But the COVID-19 pandemic has made large, dense crowds too dangerous, and the transition hasn’t been peaceful.
After the attack on the Capitol two weeks ago and threats of violence from Trump supporters across the country, the National Mall is now surrounded by layers of eight-foot metal fencing, thousands of National Guard troops, and every level of law enforcement, from the Secret Service to local police officers tasked with stopping domestic terrorists from attacking and overthrowing their government.
And many of those groups support white nationalist ideologies that are antithetical to King’s dream.
“It’s really frightening. I try to look back and say much progress has been made. The Jim Crow laws fell, certain things changed. But the racial animus, the white supremacy that’s the foundation of the country is reasserting itself in a really obvious mainstream way that I’ve never seen,” says author and journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan. “It’s an age-old fight, but it feels very critical right now.”
Racism today doesn’t enjoy the same legal protections that it did when King was alive, but Kaplan says it has seen a political and social spotlight unlike ever before, with fringe groups taking center stage and elected politicians promoting racist policies.
“It has completely infected us. And how we uninfect ourselves, I don’t know,” she says. “Many people are embracing this openly. It is no longer a moral issue to them.”
Isaac Bryan, director of public policy at the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, says the riot at the Capitol is an example of pushback from white extremists who feel left behind by society’s movement toward racial equality.
“I don’t think [King’s dream] is realized. I think we get symbolic gestures of realization. But at the substance and at the root, we’re not seeing the change and the dream that Dr. King marched and spoke and died for,” he says.
Once Senator Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president on Wednesday, there will be no female Black U.S. Senators. Racial disparities are felt in LA too, where Black residents are more likely to be incarcerated, homeless, and infected with COVID-19 than white residents.
But Bryan says he sees reason to be optimistic. “I am hopeful because we do have the kind of leadership, the kind of community mobilization that does spur change. … And the largest protests in the country in response to George Floyd’s murder happened here in Los Angeles. So I have hope and I keep faith alive but we have a lot of issues we need to address.”