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.
Randolph was America’s best-known civil rights leader from the 1930s until King eclipsed him in the early 1960s. Founder of the first successful black-led labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and vice president of the AFL-CIO, he was also a top leader of Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party of America. Just before World War II he bullied Franklin Roosevelt into integrating the booming defense industry by threatening to organize a mass march on Washington. By 1963, with police violence rampant in the South and a civil rights act stalled in Congress, he decided the time had come.
The march’s hands-on organizer was Randolph’s longtime aide, the black pacifist and gay rights pioneer (and future Soviet Jewry activist) Bayard Rustin. Rustin had gone to India in the 1940s to study non-violent activism with Gandhi. In 1957 Randolph sent him to Alabama to teach non-violence theory to the young Dr. King.
On that day in 1963, at the end, after Bob Dylan sang and King spoke, Rustin read the march’s “demands” to the quarter-million assembled: passage of the civil rights act, full school integration, banning discrimination in housing, a national minimum wage and a massive job-training and employment program “for every person in this nation, black or white.”
Randolph had laid out the themes as the day began. “This civil rights revolution,” he said, “is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not.”
“And we know that we have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?”
For Randolph, the fight for black rights had to be the cutting edge of a larger social struggle. Demanding justice for one’s own kind alone would change nothing: “Negroes are in the forefront of today’s movement for social and racial justice, because we know we cannot expect the realization of our aspirations through the same old anti-democratic social institutions and philosophies that have all along frustrated our aspirations.” That would be building a castle on sand.
It’s hard to remember now, but words like those didn’t sound so radical in 1963, when one-third of workers belonged to unions, when middle-class students risked their lives for social change, wealthy folks saw their top tax rate cut to a piddling 70% and low-skilled workers could buy a house and send their kids to college.
But that era was coming to an end, and the march helped to end it. America forgot Randolph that day and embraced his young, passionate, inexperienced student, the one who had a dream about a cruel America repaying its debt to his people. Who saw blacks living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Who couldn’t yet imagine an America of whites in need or blacks reaching out.
Before he died, King came to realize that his vision was too small, that black and white must fight together for both white and black, as Randolph had urged. But by then the movement for social justice had become many minorities celebrating their different identities and battling a soulless American majority. And the scorned majority, inevitably, turned its back.
And now, two generations later, all those precious castles built on sand — voting rights, food stamps, minimum wage, even women’s choice — are washing out to sea.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).