March on Washington Won Freedom But Fell Short on Jobs

Economic Inequality Still Rife a Half Century After King's Speech

Unfinished Business: The March on Washington was supposed to be about justice and economic equality for black Americans. The second part of that mission is still far from accomplished.
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Unfinished Business: The March on Washington was supposed to be about justice and economic equality for black Americans. The second part of that mission is still far from accomplished.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published August 25, 2013, issue of August 30, 2013.

Well, the big news is out. As we mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I have a dream” speech, it seems racial inequality hasn’t improved over the years the way we’d hoped it would. In some ways it’s hardly budged. And we still can’t figure out why.

If you’re following the liberal media lately, you’ve probably heard that black unemployment remains twice as high as among whites, just as it was 50 years ago. Income inequality is unchanged, too: Black households make just under 60% of white household income, the same as in 1963.

There’s more money to go around, of course. America’s per capita income, measured in constant 2009 dollars, has more than tripled since 1963, from $18,000 per year then to about $49,000 now. On the other hand, the lion’s share of that increase has gone to a fraction of the population, while folks at the bottom have hardly moved. Poverty has declined across the board, but the black poverty rate is still a shocking 27.5%, nearly triple the white rate.

Was the great march all for nothing, then? Does King’s dream remain merely a dream?

Well, some things have greatly improved. College enrollment among blacks, which was less than half the rate of whites in 1963 — 4% versus 10% — is now roughly equal at about 50% each (of high school graduates, that is). Black high school graduation rates are higher, too (62%, up from 25% in 1963), and closer to white rates (currently 80%, up from 50%).

No change is more dramatic than the number of black elected officials. There were about 500 nationwide in 1965, before the Voting Rights Act. Today there are about 10,500.

In broad terms, we might say black Americans have come a long way toward equality in civil rights — the rights guaranteed under the law — but they’ve hardly moved in economic equality.

In a sense, that’s to be expected. Our government doesn’t guarantee you a living. We expect it to set the rules and then get out of the way. And in fact, the rules are enforced more fairly than in 1963. It’s not perfect, but it’s better.

That’s not what that march was about, though. Its full title was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Alas, King spoke about freedom, and he spoke so eloquently that everyone forgot about jobs.

We also forgot this: King didn’t lead the march. He was one of the speakers and a member of the organizing committee. The leader, the man who had the idea and pulled it all together, who spoke first and last that day, was a 74-year-old labor leader, A. Philip Randolph.



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