Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday remembrance in 2017 comes on the heels of racist ideologue Dylann Roof being sentenced to death for the murders of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. The past year was riddled with the fatal shootings of unarmed black men by police officers, and a black man fatally ambushed law enforcement officers — black and white — in Baton Rouge.

When Dr. King had dreams of racial harmony, this surely wasn’t it.

But while acknowledging setbacks, former Judge Calvin Johnson said it's important to look further back in history to see how far society has come toward racial equality.

“I have seen so much, growing up in the Deep South of the 1950s. I was literally 20 miles away when black 14-year-old Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago, was lynched in Mississippi at the hands of two white brothers … his apparent punishment for flirting with a white store clerk,” said Johnson, criminal justice commissioner for the city of New Orleans and keynote speaker for this year’s Martin Luther King Day celebration. 

Many witnesses, black and white, testified against the defendants, who admitted abducting and killing the boy, but an all-white jury acquitted the two men.

Bill Minor, a former New Orleans journalist, now 94, covered that trial in Mississippi.

“Covering racial violence in the 1950’s, sadly, was a way of life," Minor said. "And remember, in 1955, none of the black residents of Tallahatchie County were registered voters, and therefore ineligible to even serve as jurors.

"Progress in today’s world may seem slow to some, but we’ve come a long way from the Jim Crow South.”

Dreams and backlash

If inclusion and acceptance for everyone was King’s dream, the concept and subsequent backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement might be something he’d wrestle with.

The intent of the campaign was to illuminate problems, not cause divisiveness, said LaToya Cantrell, a New Orleans councilwoman who has been mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate.

“It was an attempt to draw attention to what is happening in black America. It was to underscore how systems have been set up for mass incarceration of an entire race of people: one set of rules for whites caught with cocaine, and another for blacks. But, the world is becoming more brown, and it forces everyone to communicate. Families which are diverse are forced to look at the lives of others, and become more empathetic … to accept and to love.”

Indeed, with a black president in the White House for the past eight years, some of King’s dream of achieving what then seemed impossible has come to fruition. Still, Cantrell acknowledges, there’s a lot of work to be done.

“My district, Broadmoor, is just a microcosm of New Orleans, and in a larger sense, the country. I work within an arena of racial and socioeconomic diversity that is the most disparate in the city. We have the most affluent areas, and the poorest. But, it is about working in harmony for the betterment of our community. This neighborhood has gone from blockbusting and crack dens in the 1960s to a diverse mix of races, cultures and religions today. It shows that if we can trust one another, we can succeed.”

'My teachers are the young'

Calvin Johnson believes that the dreams of King can be accomplished by embracing the sentiments of Robert Frost’s poem “What Fifty Said,” in which a middle-aged person looks back on impatient younger days and muses, in part: "Now when I am old my teachers are the young."

“His themes speak to the fact that we may be saddled with the sins of the past, but as we look to the youth of today, with their unbridled hopes and dreams, they can open our eyes to a changing world,” Johnson said.

With a new administration taking the White House, the work continues.

“And we need good intentions,” said Cantrell, “so that King’s vision of a colorblind world can be realized for upcoming generations.”