Economic justice eludes black Americans 50 years after MLK’s ‘dream’
This month we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the momentous March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s acclaimed “I Have a Dream” speech.
By far the most familiar portion of that speech is the aspirational line in which King muses on the day when his children will be “judged by the content of their character” and not the color of their skin. Yet recitations of this passage almost always ignore its context — and the persistent significance of the overall events.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which was the official theme of the march, took place 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It had been a century of state-sponsored brutality, injustice and inequality.
And King’s dream of a day in which character trumped color was not spoken of in a vacuum. It was to be the defining result of an America that fully embraced the democratic ideals of freedom, justice and equality as the inheritance of every citizen.
Throughout the speech, King referenced the incivilities and inconveniences that segregation visited upon blacks, and he denounced the efforts of southern politicians to nullify court rulings and interpose the states’ rights against federal laws that were meant to end segregation.
The 250,000 attendees of the Aug. 28, 1963, march demanded rights and protections that would eventually be put into law in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act — signed almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War.
Focusing only on the eloquence and power of King’s oratory has caused even some of his admirers to miss the historical context of King’s call for social equality and the contemporary significance of the issues of that day. The march was organized both to demonstrate public support for civil rights legislation and to call for action to address the high unemployment rate among black Americans.
Fifty years later those themes are still relevant.
The National Urban League’s “State of Black America Report” for 2013 notes that 10 percent of black Americans were unemployed in 1963, compared with 12.6 percent today. For most of this time, unemployment among blacks has remained almost double the national average and that of white Americans.
The picture isn’t any better in recessionary times. The average unemployment rate during recession years over the past 50 years has been 6.7 percent. Yet for African-Americans during that time, the average has been 11.6 percent while for whites the rate has been 5.1 percent, at times falling as low as 3.1 percent. Only in 1969 did black unemployment dip below the national recession average to 6.4 percent. The report’s conclusion: Over the last 50 years, the black unemployment rate has been at a level typical for a recession or higher.
Meanwhile, the percentage of blacks living in poverty has decreased from 48 percent in 1963 to 28 percent in 2013, and the number of black children living at the poverty line has improved to 38 percent, compared with 57 percent in 1963. However, the poverty rate among black households compared with white ones was a staggering 27.6 percent vs. 9.8 percent as recently as 2011.
King’s growing awareness of the depth of economic disparity eventually caused him to lament that his dream had turned into a nightmare. He would come to place greater emphasis on economic justice, even protesting the Vietnam War as a national distraction to the priority of eliminating poverty. King was assassinated nearly five years after the 1963 speech, while in Memphis, Tenn., supporting the cause of striking garbage workers. His final days had been spent organizing a Poor People’s Campaign, in which thousands of poor Americans would occupy Washington until their concerns were addressed.
Fifty years after the March on Washington, that event and the true context of King’s speech are vivid reminders that however far we’ve come, we still have a great deal of unfinished business.
The Rev. Gerald Britt Jr. is vice president of public policy at CitySquare. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and he blogs at changethewind.org.