'It's a great dream to have' 50 years after MLK speech

Published On: Aug 28 2013 06:54:47 PM CDT   Updated On: Aug 28 2013 07:17:05 PM CDT

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.

It gave people hope that change could happen, but has that dream come true in the La Crosse area?

Thomas Harris was just 7 years old when Martin Luther King made his famous speech in front of millions.

At the time he thought it was just any other speech, but that changed as he grew older.

“There's many times I think back, ‘Would Thomas Harris, as a black man, be able to go to school at UW-Stevens Point to get an undergraduate degree and then come to UW-L to get a masters degree, and then work here?’” Harris asked. “I don't know how realistic that would have been.”

Now 50 years later, Harris is the assistant director of Multicultural Student Services at UW-L.

He said while things have changed, King's dream hasn't come true yet.

“There's many, many things that we didn't have way back when that we do today, but again we're not perfect,” said Harris.

One of the biggest changes he's seen is in education.

“We're definitely seeing more teachers coming in teaching about issue of equity and access, privilege on different levels,” said Harris.

King's speech called for racial and economic justice, something Harris says we're still struggling with today.

“Even the access for education, you can see the people who have it and the people who don't,” said Harris. “You can probably break that down in so many different ways. There (is also the) number of people who are in prison.”

Historically, the unemployment rate among blacks has always been higher than the overall rate.

Last month the numbers showed unemployment among African-Americans at 12.6 percent compared to the 7.4 overall.

So for now, King's dream will still remain a dream.

“Yes, but it's a great dream to have, and it does remind people that it's something to always strive for, for the future,” said Harris.

He said more education and awareness will help us get even closer in the next 50 years.

Harris also said UW-L is the first in the UW system to create a campus climate office and the idea came from the students.

“It's come to be a something that's part of our everyday structure on campus,” said Harris. “This is a place where if there are issues of inequality or hate situations, it could be reported to that office to start the process in order to make things better.”

The African-American population in La Crosse has changed in the last 50 years, but not by much.

There were about 47,500 white people living in La Crosse back in the 1960s, but only 21 African-Americans.

Today, there are just under 1,200 African-Americans in the area, but nearly 40 times as many as whites.

Five decades later, more than half of Americans believe race relations are generally good, but a CBS News poll released today shows room for improvement.

Sixty-two percent of blacks said they have experienced racial discrimination compared to 29 percent of whites.