We all know the history of the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s magnificent I Have a Dream Speech. But do we quote from just a part of his remarks that day? Are our memories selective only hearing the phrase “I Have a Dream today” and his ringing declaration “let freedom ring.”
Have we forgotten what happened when he turned his attention to combating economic injustice after the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were changing the political equation regarding black civic engagement in our democracy?
Census Bureau statistics show that when comparing the lot of American blacks in 1963 and 2012 there has been considerable progress yet the racial boundaries between blacks and the rest of the population remain stubbornly consistent.
58.5% of blacks voted in the 1964 election while 62% voted in 2012. This was despite new impediments to voting thrown up by Voter ID Laws, and other voter suppression techniques. People of color waited in lines in many Southern states for six, seven, even ten hours to cast their ballots. It was not the justice of the system but the perseverance of the people in casting those ballots that made the 2012 National Election work.
And the U.S. Department of Justice using Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act significantly blew away the worst voter suppression measures put in the way in 2012 in both Southern and Northern States controlled by Republican Governors and legislatures. Now, new voter suppression efforts have been launched when this portion of the Voting Rights Act has been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court not because it is unconstitutional in principle but because justice was seen as fully achieved and no longer necessary.
Now Texas and North Carolina have introduced the most draconian voter suppression laws in the nation, with other states to follow knowing they have a largely toothless Voting Rights Act to deal with.
In 1964 only 25.7% of blacks age 25 and over completed at least four years of high school. In 2012, 85% have done so. This is a real achievement of the Civil Rights Years of the 1950’s and 1960’s of the Second Reconstruction. It is in spite of many urban schools where blacks make up the majority of students facing cuts in budgets and even school closings. If it is to be maintained and even improved upon we will have to invest in these young people going into the system now.
Only 3.9% of blacks 25 and over earned a college degree in 1963. Today 21.2% do amounting to 5.1 million blacks with at least a bachelor’s degree. Here is one statistic that should give the lie to those who view black people as drug addicts and welfare queens. This is really a picture of the emergent black middle class of today and its vigorous contribution to American life. But only a fifth of blacks have college degrees when the number for whites is significantly higher even now. Real equal opportunity is still not yet reality.
Income tells us a lot about the persistence of the difference between black and white opportunity and equality in this society. In 1963 black income was $22,266 in 2011 dollars. That is $40, 495 in 2011. Improvement yes, but we must note black families earn only 66% of what the rest of the nation’s families do, derived from a white population that even now, is an overwhelming majority, 62.5% of us are white. These figures are even a little worse for the equal pay for equal work situation for women in our society.
Poverty rates have shown progress but this wall between real equality and opportunity stubbornly remains. In 1966 the only approximate year the Census Bureau has to offer us 41.8% of blacks lived in poverty. Today, only 27.6% do. That’s real progress but not a solution. Just as black unemployment is more than double what it is for white people even during serious economic woes faced by America’s middle class the poverty rate for the general population in 1963 and in 2012 was 14.5% and 15% respectively. Whites use poverty programs in raw numbers more than blacks do but that is a function of their much larger numbers. Blacks were 10.7% of the U.S. population in 1963 and just 14.2% now.
These Census figures do not show the Latino and other people of color and how they fare but it is we know likely to be not so well when compared to people of white Caucasian background.
Dr. King said something else beyond the dream of black and white children playing together in real racial brotherhood and sisterhood, being judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. The Trayvon Martin case crystallized for a nation that while young people handle race so much better than their parents or grandparents do the image of the threatening black man and black families using government services but not contributing anything remain in place.
King said on that day, 28 August 1963, “One hundred years later the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Were the Census Bureau to isolate blacks with college degrees from the statistics, the remaining population would indeed still today be found sitting on that island of poverty.
Think on this now: what do you see in pockets in our major urban centers across the nation? Yes, you see whole communities of people of color where poverty remains the order of the day and crime is a greater problem, and unemployment is a way of life. These people are trapped on that island with no place to go to get out of their plight. The nation has not devoted the time, a full generation, the effort, what we all can do and the people themselves can do, and especially the resources to combat this social ill.
The National Urban league would have some excellent statistics and suggestions for action to help relieve the stress on Urban black and Latino families and help them have other options for their lives. But this country can’t keep its eye on one thing for more than a news cycle or two, not to mention a generation of regeneration of our urban landscapes and the people who live there. When Bill Clinton made a modest effort to devote sixteen billion dollars to improve urban conditions in his very first budget proposal it was bitterly attacked and it crashed and burned in Congress.
If you would but read the most important book on race in America available today, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, you would see at once that black young men and women are several times more than whites, likely to be incarcerated and get themselves the status of felons, limiting their ability to succeed in our nation for the rest of their lives if nothing is done. Much the same is happening with other people of color, especially Latinos living in high poverty urban places. Other black people live in rural poverty in the old Confederate South. This is not because these people are natural born criminals and blacks and Latinos are more likely by nature to commit crimes. It is because we have not addressed what Dr. King appealed us to right to his death in 1968.
The March on Washington was a kind of beginning and not an end.
The war on drugs has concentrated billions upon billions of dollars since Richard Nixon declared it in the 1960’s on neighborhoods where blacks and other people of color could be found in high concentrations. Police departments in our big cities have used these resources to more heavily police places with a lot of people of color. Despite blacks and whites using illegal substances at equal rates the arrest rate for drug offenses is six times higher according to statistics provided in The New Jim Crow for people of color then the rest of us. And the numbers of arrests are so high that those arrested for drug offenses are put under immense pressure to plead guilty in favor of a lighter sentence.
The persistence of this wall of separation between the relative equality of people of color and the rest of us is not because blacks and Latinos are inferior or unnaturally prone to laziness and felonious acts. It is because the institutional structure of the nation is not configured in such a way to even now, yes even now, so long after the 1963 March on 28 August of that year to be prejudicial to people of color.
The rising black middle class and the vibrant and talented Latino middle class and its entrepreneurship expose the lies about how some people see people of color. The racial prejudice passed from one generation to another and the unwillingness to reach into those dark and dirty crevices of our national edifice and bring in the light of true equality and opportunity to all are to blame. Now, there are whites who had been blue collar middle class falling into poverty and remaining unemployed and when re-employed working for lower pay.
What are we going to do to leave that 50th Anniversary March on Washington held just last week with a new sense of purpose? It is going to be a mighty hard road but we have to go there to do battle with the injustices that remain in the America of 2013. No one is exempt from this struggle. No one is excused. For those who commit racial injustice know they are doing it just as they did back in 1963.
The nation well knows its problems but when the ultra-rich look the other way and block efforts for change or those further down the economic ladder turn on those below them and blame them for their troubles instead of looking up many rungs to see the real chiselers and idlers, and to see as if for the first time the real persistence of race as a factor in the way we live then we have failed Dr. King and his dream completely.
Probably the most clear indicator that we have much to do with ending racism and completing the scaffolding of Dr. King’s mighty dream for America, is to end much of the racial geographical boundaries between us. Why aren’t more of us friends with people of other races with that fact in the back of our minds and it all seeming natural? Here some of blame comes to every single one of us. There are black people who are not so keen to live next to white people.
The Jews in their religious tradition view the breaking of bread together as one of the most intimate acts of association that a person can engage in. Why don’t we end the ability to see your metropolitan area getting whiter as you drive away from the city or becoming more colored as you drive toward it? And why are some people not able to even see that because they have just the city busses to travel on.
Let us break bread together. As truly one people who care compassionately about even one of us not getting the opportunity and the equal treatment under the law and customs of our society and battling mightily to end those distinctions.
No, we must not end individual responsibility for criminality or a lack of interest in moving yourself ahead. To the extent these things are encountered those folks need a kick in the behind. Be careful, this sort of sloth knows no racial or economic boundaries. The next welfare queen might be a white Caucasian woman who just has no interest in working hard to succeed.
Let us finish here with something Dr. King said in a 1967 speech that even today is controversial even within the black civil rights community. But he spoke from the heart and with a prophet’s truth searing into our very souls. We were not listening. Here it is:
“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. When machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”
Let us please Lord not be found wanting in our zeal and commitment to fighting injustice in our world wherever we find it and speaking the truth about those injustices to the unjust. You counsel us, nay command us, to care for “the least of these” and everything we do for them is done for you. Everything that is not done for them is not done for you.
Will we permit “justice to roll down like a mighty stream” as King said that day? It is up to you and to all of us.
Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
for Struggles for Justice