AS WE CELEBRATE the 59th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the outlook is bleak in the community of hope he left behind. When King was alive, the civil rights movement was constantly warned that it had gone too far, that there would be a white backlash against our efforts. The Reagan years have brought that backlash against not only the movement for racial justice, but the women's movement, the gay rights movement and the idea of broad, inclusive political activity generally. The civil rights community has been on the defensive and the outside world has approached the subject with glazed eyes and covered ears.
Yet the economic, educational and political inequities that remain embedded in our culture still coarsen the texture of daily life for all Americans, constrict the opportunities of virtually all blacks and wreak devastation in the lives of that forty percent or so of the black community that lives just above, at or below the poverty line.
By and large, the black poor are physically isolated not only from whites, but from successful blacks as well. Newspapers tell of the consequences: Teen-age pregancies and teenage murders rise to alarming heights while inner city schools struggle just to keep order; the spirits of children fight a losing battle with decay and hopelessness; and our president, who tells us that our trade deficit is a sign of our economic strength, also tells us that it is wasteful to invest national resources in attempts to address those problems. On the last point, the nation seems to believe him.
The distinguished educator, Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, was a friend and colleague of Martin King. A few years ago, while serving on the board that oversees public elementary and secondary education in New York State, Clark concluded that America had given up on poor black children. Recalling his years in the civil rights movement with King and others, he asked: "How did we fail?"
Considering all the effort, gallantry, sacrifice, hoping -- and dying -- invested in the two decades from the Brown school desegregation decision in 1954 to the end of the Nixon presidency in 1974, that question has enormous emotional power. But further considering that this span is only 20 years against almost 350 years of racial oppression, it is wrong to think about failure. Deep disappointment at recent setbacks is surely warranted. But it is more appropriate to conclude, as King clearly did, after watching his attacks on systemic racism in northern cities dissipate like water on sand, that we didn't fail; we simply aren't finished. As a matter of fact, we've only just begun.
Just before his death, King, recognizing that we were at a new moment in history, began to fashion his Poor Peoples' Campaign. Over lunch in a Miami hotel in February 1968, he told me that the poverty and powerlessness of huge segments of the black community had to be addressed before the crusade for justice could be deemed complete. He didn't know how the Campaign would end, but the direction had to be set and the energy developed. Two months later, he was murdered.
After the passage of another 20 years that new moment in our history is still waiting to be born. These last 20 years have, at least, given us a clearer idea of both our problems and our assets. The great problems are the isolation of the poor, the devastated lives of poor black children, the low level of moral concern, political interest and policy creativity in most of white America.
Still, as a result of the successes of the earlier phase of the movement, there are new assets as well. America is far less segregated than it was 40 years ago and many more black people vote. A few blacks have attained previously unheard-of positions in politics, entertainment, business, the professions and professional athletics. Moreover, so many other blacks have filled in behind these super-achievers that Dr. Bart Landry of the University of Maryland tells us that the black middle class has grown from 15 percent of the black population in 1960 to about 37 percent today.
But the problems of the black poor will not be addressed effectively by America until that 37 percent of us begin to lead the way. America did not begin to deal with the evil of Southern segregation until the blacks of Montgomery began to lead the way. We fortunate blacks can begin to do that now by demolishing the barriers that isolate us offering our skills and our energy to efforts to help solve their problems.
But let's be honest: just as cross-race contacts are fraught with anxiety and fear, so are cross-class contacts. Probably the best place to start resestablishing contacts is in the inner city schools. Volunteers in the schools can not only provide valuable educational help, they can also serve as successful role-models for children sorely in need of them.
The volunteers are almost sure to form alliances with the parents and the teachers and, in the process, learn from them first hand about the economic, health, housing and criminal justice problems that press in on the horizons of these children. From such beginnings, new energies and political strategies would surely develop and new moral guidance would be given to the rest of America.
A few such efforts are already underway. Here in Washington, the Board of Education has initiated the Scholars in the Schools program in which professors help pupils in the public schools develop writing skills. In other communities blacks have developed Saturday schools to teach children about their heritage or drill them in math and science skills.
These are slim beginnings, but then, Rosa Parks was only one woman. Circumstances were grim in earlier times, but blacks persevered and advanced. Things are grim for the black poor, but they have a large asset in the skills and the fellow-feelings of those of us who are not poor. That is the kind of thing that a middle class, well-educated fellow named Martin Luther King, Jr. would surely have understood.
Roger Wilkins is Robinson professor of history at George Mason University and senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.