“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” said Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963.

Things haven’t changed as much as Dr. King had hoped.

Members of the Carnegie Mellon University community, along with local denizens, gathered in CMU’s McConomy Auditorium on Jan. 17 to honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. King.

Classes at the university suspended at noon and all were invited to attend CMU’s annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Program “Replacing Despair and Hopelessness With Hope and Opportunity,” which included a panel discussion and Community Conversation,  moderated by CMU’s Assistant Vice-President for Diversity, Everett Tademy. The panelists included CMU Professor Alfred Blumstein, Executive Director of Interbranch Commission for Gender, Racial and Ethnic Fairness Lisette McCormick and the University of Pittsburgh’s Dean of the School of Social Work, Larry E. Davis.

The panel discussion focused on the disparate number of African-Americans who are incarcerated compared to Whites, the alarming number of African-American males dying of gun violence every year and what could be done to reduce those numbers.

Davis quoted an alarming statistic during his speech. Approximately 7,000 African-American soldiers were killed during the United States’ 13 year involvement in the Vietnam War. From 1990 to 1994, 9,000 or more African-American men were killed in the United States each year.

“More African-Americans were being killed on the streets of America than in the entire Vietnam conflict,” Davis stressed. On the positive side, he said that those numbers have since decreased to approximately 6,000 per year.

Davis went on to explain that the loss of males, either through violent death or incarceration, from communities leads to more violent communities. “Who socializes the children?” he asked.

One way to effect positive change is for African-American men to be more involved with their families and their communities, Davis said.

Blumstein quoted more hopeful statistics in his speech. Between 1993 and 2000, he explained, there was a combined drop in homicides and robberies by more than 40 percent as a result of the reduction in the crack cocaine market. In 2009, the year of the recession, the nation experienced a roughly 8 percent drop in homicides. The year 2009 also marked the inauguration of our first African-American president, Barack Obama.

“Is it possible,” Blumstein asked, “that the election of a Black president, at least, to some marginal degree, is the kind of change that gets to some of these street people, who are the ones responsible for so much of the violence, and indicates a possibility that, whatever the factors that contributed to despair, might be turning around?”

For Blumstein, the answer to the problem lies in determining what “societal changes could move the despair, the hopelessness out of the inner city area … where so much of the violence occurs.”

McCormick noticed right away, during her two years as an Allegheny County public defender, the disparity between the treatment of White and Black defendants. She said “an overwhelming majority” of her Black clients wore shackles into the courtroom, reminding McCormick of the slave era from which we have come so far.

McCormick’s Interbranch Commission, established in 2005, has worked to not only identify the problems that contribute to the disproportionate amount of African-Americans in the criminal justice system, but to also bring about change. One milestone they’ve already reached is the policy for the Pennsylvania courts on Non-Discrimination and Equal Employment Opportunity.

“I think it’s important to honor Martin Luther King, the things he did, the things he was trying to do and use this [panel discussion] as a departure point for seeing where we go next,” said Blumstein in a brief interview afterward.

(Davis wrote an article, which appeared in part in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and in its entirety in the Pitt Chronicle, entitled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Would Be Surprised, that outlined the areas where he believes Dr. King would be both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised at how African-Americans have progressed since the days of Jim Crow laws and segregation.)

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