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The Dream, 43 years later

Today is the 20th national celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

Perhaps it’s a testament to how far we’ve come that the holiday is now accepted enough to become a commercial peg. In the days leading up to the holiday, local retailers ran TV and print ads touting MLK Day sale specials. That’s not exactly the equality that Dr. King sought, but it puts his day on par with Presidents Day in February.

Many cities will host events today in honor of Dr. King. And most will probably include at least a mention of his address to the crowd on the Mall in Washington, D.C., the famous “I have a dream speech.” Mlk_speech_color

As powerful and memorable as that segment of the speech is, it is just a small portion of Dr. King’s words on that hot summer day. In leading up to his dream, he elaborated on the struggle for justice and equality, racial and economic, for all Americans. And he characterized the 1963 gathering as just the beginning.

Sometimes it seems that from that beginning, we’ve stalled along the route. Sure, racial segregation is no longer legal, the income gap among races has closed somewhat and a majority of Americans last week told AP-Ipsos pollsters that they believe there has been significant progress in achieving racial equality goals.

But on issues as sensitive as race, I suspect that people tend to say what they wish was true or what they think is politically correct. And despite the progress, there’s still much to do. In the almost 43 years since that speech, there is still a large and struggling underclass in America. Remember the aftermath of Katrina?

If you need a refresher of those stunning images, check out Zadi Diaz’s post-hurricane footage set to Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” A tip: Right click and open the video in a new window and then keep reading because it takes a while for the program to open. It’s worth the wait.

Before Katrina, when was the last time the country looked into the faces of so many poor, disenfranchised and needy Americans, of all races and ethnic backgrounds? And now that Gulf Coast residents have relocated, how many times since have we paid attention? Life goes on.

Sadly, life too often goes on in an inordinately uneven fashion. Take, for example, the problems that arise even from programs designed to help the working poor, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. This tax break was created to help low-income workers keep a larger portion of their paychecks by offsetting some federal taxes. But it is a complex tax benefit, especially difficult for a segment of the population that can’t afford to hire tax experts to help them sort out the details.

And yes, sometimes that complexity does lend itself to abuse by recipients. But not to the degree that would justify recent Internal Revenue Service efforts to limit refunds based on the credit.

The extent of IRS efforts was made appallingly clear last week when the agency’s own Taxpayer Advocate, Nina Olson, told Congress that IRS criminal investigators devoted vastly more resources to pursing questionable refunds by the poor than to investigating underreported incomes from small businesses. The amount of these filers’ EITC credits in dispute: $9 billion. The money lost by unpaid business taxes: $100 billion.

During the process, the IRS froze the refunds and didn’t tell the taxpayers, whose average income was $13,000, that they were suspected of fraud. Ultimately, as noted in Olson’s annual report (you can read all 600-plus pages of it here), two-thirds of the taxpayers who had their EITC-related refunds held were found to qualify for the amounts they claimed or even more.

Why did the government spend its time and our money investigating the poorest segment of the population for a substantially smaller tax amount? Could it be that it’s easier to go after those less equipped, both financially and educationally, to defend themselves? Yeah, that’s a lot of progress down the road for social equality and justice in 2006, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to grant tax cuts to wealthier Americans while cutting programs and services designed to assist the poorer of our citizenry. Heck, even the middle-class must wait for expiring tax relief to be revived while still-in-place tax breaks for high-income earners get attention first.

On Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. King told the crowd on the Washington Mall that, “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”

Take a few minutes to listen again to all of his words. You can find the text and an audio link here.

And today, if on no other day this year, at least consider which way that stream is flowing.

A look back: Nick Kotz, author of "Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America," writes about events leading to the passage of the historic Voting Rights Act and political developments since in today's Washington Post.

Elsewhere: A slightly different version of these thoughts is published on, "a sinister cabal of superior bloggers on music, books, film, popular culture, technology, and politics."


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