Special Guest Blog: Fifty Years After the March on Washington, Where Are We Today?


(Editor’s Note: This August 28 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous March on Washington. To mark this momentous occasion in American history, we will be running several blogs over the rest of this month examining the state of civil rights in America. To start, we present a special guest blog by David Aretha, author of numerous books in Morgan Reynolds’ The Civil Rights Movement series, including its two most recent additions, Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington and Brown v. Board of Education.)

During his immortal “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. bellowed “I have a dream” eight times, often following with metaphorical phrases. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He dreamed that the state of Mississippi, “a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression,” would be “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

Looking to the heavens and then shaking his head, King declared to a crowd of 250,000: “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. I have a dream today!”

 King roused the crowd so much that shortly afterward he had a look of fear on his face. “You was smoking,” King’s friend Clarence Jones told him afterward. “The words was so hot they was just burning off the page!” Watching on television at the White House, President Kennedy said of King: “He’s damned good. Damned good.”

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this August, educators and journalists are asking the question: “Have Martin Luther King’s dreams been fulfilled?” Are Americans today judged by the “content of their character?” Does American justice roll “down like waters?” Some respondents—politicians, historians, sociologists, and people on the street—will say yes, the dream has been fulfilled. But many others will say that we have a long, long way to go.

During the 40th anniversary of the March, in 2003, cultural geographer Derek Alderman noted that at least 730 cities and towns had honored the beloved icon with a street name, mostly in African American neighborhoods. Sadly, most of those streets had become boulevards of despair.

It is ironic that virtually every Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in America is a street of abandoned buildings, abandoned businesses, abandoned people, abandoned dreams,” stated James P. Danky of the Wisconsin Historical Society. “Those who honor King’s name need to think about fulfilling the promise of his dream to those who have been forsaken in our inner cities.”

In many ways, King’s dreams have come true. The Civil Rights Act spelled doom for government-sanctioned segregation; by the 1970s, the only “Coloreds Only” signs you’d find would be on abandoned buildings in the rural South. After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, virtually every African American could register to vote without hindrance. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), formed in 1965, has been mostly successful in one of its major initiatives: preventing workers from being denied jobs based on their race.

Some conservatives claim that government has gone overboard in helping African Americans—to the point where whites are the ones discriminated against. They point to affirmative-action initiatives in higher education. To give minority students a break after generations of oppression, federal legislation allowed schools to accept a certain percentage of minority applicants even if some white applicants had better test scores. Also, in hundreds of American cities, judges’ “busing” decrees resulted in black students being transported to predominantly white schools—and vice versa—to achieve racial balance. Both of these practices were hotly debated from the late 1960s to the 21st century. In recent decades, courts have greatly rolled back affirmative-action and busing initiatives.

While African Americans have virtually achieved equal-rights status in terms of jobs, housing, voting, etc., they do not enjoy equal prosperity. Far from it. In 2010, the median-average household income for African Americans was $32,068, compared to $50,673 for whites. In 2011, approximately 28 percent of African Americans lived below the poverty line (an increase from 25 percent in 2005), compared to about 9 percent of whites.

During the recent recession, the black unemployment rate jumped from 8 to 16 percent while the white rate went from only 4 to 8 percent. Inner-city schools have become such “failure factories” that many students never graduate high school. According to a 2004 book by Thomas M. Shapiro, “The net worth of typical white families is $81,000 compared to $8,000 for black families.”

Conservatives claim that black Americans are responsible for their own hardship. They note the fact that more than 70 percent of African American children are born out of wedlock. Poor family values, they say, is the problem. They point to Newark, New Jersey, where a nation-high $22,000 a year was spent to educate each student, yet half of the school system’s students did not graduate. Many whites have long been fed up with having to spend their tax dollars on welfare programs and food stamps (even though such programs are just tiny percentages of state and federal budgets).

But here’s something to think about: Traditionally in America, families need about three generations before they move into the upper middle class. Generally speaking, the first generation—the one that immigrates to the United States—is working class, the second generation is middle class, and the third generation enters the professional ranks and moves into the upper middle class. While many African American families have been in the United States for more than a century, they have had full rights for only a short period of time.

Say a black man was born in 1963 and had a daughter at age thirty. The father was among the first generation of African Americans to enjoy equal rights in regards to education, housing, and employment. Thus, he can be compared to first-generation U.S. immigrants, the “bottom of the ladder” citizens who have historically had low-paying jobs. The black man’s daughter could be compared to second-generation immigrants—those who tend to rise to the middle class. But his daughter would be just twenty years old in 2013; she hasn’t even started her career yet.

Black Americans have been greatly hindered by a lack of financial assets. A well-off couple can afford to move to a suburb with a good school system; can pay for their child’s private schooling and college education; can give their child money to help with a down payment on a house; can help pay for their grandchildren’s education; and can leave a large inheritance to their survivors. In 1960, 50 percent of African Americans lived in poverty. Thus, the black Americans of the late 1900s had to make it on their own, without much financial support from Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa.

With more than 80 percent of African Americans living in urban settings—with many renting instead of owning—they have largely missed out on skyrocketing housing appreciation. From January 1970 to March 2007, the median-average price of a new home in the United States soared from $23,600 to $262,600, allowing homeowners to “cash in” big when they sold their homes. African Americans who were unwelcome in the burgeoning suburbs in the 1960s and ’70s (and in some areas, beyond that) missed out on that accumulated wealth—not to mention the benefits of good suburban schools.

In addition, some sociologists claim, many African Americans are still caught up in a “cycle of despair.” Over the centuries, most immigrants have come to the U.S. willing and eager to work hard and achieve the American Dream. But many African Americans never bought in to the American Dream—or at least didn’t think it would work for them. Their ancestors were brought to America against their will and were systematically oppressed up until the 1960s.

As Malcolm X said, “I don’t see any American Dream; I see an American nightmare.” Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael said that his father had naively bought into the American Dream. “My old man believed in this work-and-overcome stuff . . . ” he said. “He did carpentry all day and drove taxis all night. . . . The next thing that came to that poor black man was death—from working too hard.”

Those who grow up in poverty and bad school systems often find it difficult to believe that good study habits and hard work will lead to financial success. Some think that drug dealing is the only way to make good money and that being in gangs is their only chance to “be somebody.” According to a 2010 report by the Schott Foundation on Public Education, 53 percent of black male students drop out of high school without a diploma. Antipathy among black males has added to the burden of black women. From 1974 to 2004, the median income of African American men fell 12 percent while the income of black women rose 75 percent.

In most every facet of life, children have a strong tendency to imitate the behavior of their parents. Children of churchgoers, for example, are more likely to go to church as adults. And those whose parents didn’t pursue the American Dream are more likely to not pursue it themselves. It’s part of the “cycle of despair.” Moreover, parents who did not drive down the “highway of success” lack the experience to help their children drive down that proper road.

Most sociologists believe that racism—institutional (aka systematic) racism—still plays a major role in keeping African Americans in poverty. Author Herb Boyd explained in Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today:

. . . examples of institutional racism include laws created by the white majority that severely punish “black” crimes [such as possession of crack cocaine] but are lenient on “white” (such as corporate) crimes; “country club” prisons for executives; harsher sentencing for blacks compared to whites who commit the same crimes; better funding for white parts of a city than for black neighborhoods; a tax system that allows for greater funding for suburban schools than city schools; refusal of corporations to open grocery stores in inner cities, resulting in poor food options for blacks; and a disinterest by the white majority in resolving crises facing the poor, such as gang violence, homelessness, and inadequate health care.

African Americans achieved their legal rights decades ago, and whites and blacks have become a lot more comfortable interacting with each other. Most Americans embrace the idea of sitting down at a “table of brotherhood,” and most are now inclined to judge a person on the “content of their character” instead of the color of their skin.

 Unfortunately, the “cycles of despair” still spin, and institutional racism keeps millions of African Americans confined to poverty. Despite the promises of “hope and change” by the country’s first black president, conditions only worsened for African Americans during the recession. Unemployment in black communities skyrocketed. Home foreclosures reached unprecedented levels. The budgets for public schools and social programs were slashed. The black middle class shrunk, and the poverty rate rose.

Fifty years after the March on Washington, America still has a long way to go to truly fulfill the dreams of Martin Luther King.

-David Aretha, author

Published in: on August 12, 2013 at 2:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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