Antonio Brown, father of Amari Brown, speaks with the media near a sign honoring his son, Monday, July 6, 2015, in Chicago.
AP Photo/Christian K. Lee
50 years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, many of the same problems are still plaguing African-American communities, despite meaningful change that has been made.
22% of black people are still in poverty — only down from 32% since 1968.
But there are some meaningful rays of hope, like the fact that many more African Americans are attending college now than in the 1960s.
Martin Luther King though was ahead of his time in 1968 when he called for an end to unemployment, which is a controversial idea to this day. Many see cycles of poverty and unemployment as central to the African-American struggle in the US.
On Apr. 4, 1968,
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, while assisting striking sanitation workers.
That was almost 50 years ago. Back then, the wholesale racial integration required by the
1964 Civil Rights Act
was just beginning to chip away at discrimination in education, jobs and public facilities. Black voters had only obtained
two years earlier, and the
1968 Fair Housing Act
was about to become law.
African-Americans were only beginning to move into neighborhoods, colleges and careers once reserved for whites only.
I’m too young to remember those days. But hearing my parents talk about the late 1960s, it sounds in some ways like another world. Numerous African-Americans now hold positions of power, from mayor to governor to corporate chief executive — and, yes, once upon a time,
. The US is a very different place than it was 50 years ago.
Or is it? As a scholar of minority politics, I know that while some things have improved markedly for black Americans since 1968, today we are still fighting many of the same battles as Dr. King did in his day.
The issues facing African-Americans in 1968
The 1960s were tumultuous years indeed. During the
summers from 1965 to 1968, American cities saw approximately
150 race riots and other uprisings
. The protests were a sign of profound citizen anger about a nation that was, according to the
National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders
, “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
Civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., surrounded by crowds carrying signs, Washington, DC, 1963.
Library of Congress
Economically, that was certainly true. In 1968, just 10% of whites lived below the poverty level, while nearly
34% of African-Americans did
. Likewise, just 2.6% of white job seekers were unemployed, compared to
6.7% of black job seekers
A year before his death, Dr. King and others began organizing a
Poor People’s Campaign
to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”
On May 28, 1968, one month after King’s assassination, the
mass anti-poverty march took place
. Individuals from across the nation erected a tent city on the National Mall, in Washington, calling it Resurrection City. The aim was to
bring attention to the problems associated with poverty
Ralph Abernathy, an African-American minister, led the way in his fallen friend’s place.
“We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s wealth and opportunity,” Abernathy said, “and we will stay until we get it.”
Little progress has been made
So, how far have black people progressed since 1968? Have we gotten our fair share yet? Those questions have been on my mind a lot this month.
In some ways, we’ve barely budged as a people. Poverty is still too common in the US In 1968, 25 million Americans — roughly 13% of the population —
lived below poverty level
. In 2016,
43.1 million — or more than 12.7% — do
Today’s black poverty rate of
22% is almost three times that of whites
. Compared to the 1968 rate of
, there’s not been a huge improvement.
Financial security, too,
still differs dramatically by race
. Black households earn $57.30 for every $100 in income earned by white families. And for every $100 in white family wealth, black families hold just $5.04.
Another troubling aspect about black social progress — or should I say the lack thereof — is how many black families are headed by single women. In the 1960s, unmarried women were the main breadwinners for
20% of households
. In recent years, the percentage has
risen as high as 72%
This is important, but not because of some outmoded sexist ideal of the family. In the US,
as across the Americas
, there’s a powerful connection between
poverty and female-headed households
Black Americans today are also more dependent on government aid than they were in 1968. Currently, almost 40% of African-Americans are poor enough to qualify for
welfare, housing assistance and other government programs
that offer modest support to families living under the poverty line.
higher than any other US racial group
21% of Latinos, 18% Asian-Americans and 17% of whites
are on welfare.
Key areas of improvement
There are, of course, positive trends. Today, far more African-Americans graduate from college — 38% —
than they did 50 years ago
Our incomes are also way up. Black adults experienced a more significant income increase from 1980 to 2016 —
from $28,667 to $39,490
— than any other US demographic group. This, in part, is why
there’s now a significant black middle class
Legally, African-Americans may live in any community they want — and from Beverly Hills to the Upper East Side,
they can and do
But why aren’t those gains deeper and more widespread?
Some prominent thinkers — including the award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and
“The New Jim Crow”
author Michelle Alexander — put the onus on institutional racism. Coates argues, among other things, that racism has so held back African-Americans throughout history that
we deserve reparations
, resurfacing a
claim with a long history in black activism
Alexander, for her part, has famously said that racial profiling and the mass incarceration of African-Americans are just
modern-day forms of the legal, institutionalized racism
that once ruled across the American South.
More conservative thinkers may hold black people solely accountable for their problems. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Ben Carson is in this “personal responsibility” camp
, along with public intellectuals like
Depending on who you ask, then, black people aren’t much better off than in 1968 because either there’s not enough government help or there’s way too much.
Institutional racism and inadequate access to resources
I don’t have to wonder what Dr. King would recommend. He believed in institutional racism.
In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council sought to tackle inequality with the
Economic Bill of Rights
. This was not a legislative proposal, per se, but a
moral vision of a just America
where all citizens had educational opportunities, a home, “access to land
,” “a meaningful job at a living wage” and “a secure and adequate income.”
To achieve that, King wrote, the US government should create an initiative to “abolish unemployment,” by developing incentives to increase the number of jobs for black Americans. He also recommended “another program to supplement the income of those whose earnings are below the poverty level.”
Those ideas were revolutionary in 1968. Today, they seem prescient. King’s notion that all citizens need a living wage portends the
universal basic income
concept now gaining traction worldwide.
King’s rhetoric and ideology
are also obvious influences on Sen. Bernie Sanders, who in the 2016 presidential primaries advocated equality for all people, economic incentives for working families, improved schools, greater access to higher education and for anti-poverty initiatives.
Progress has been made. Just not as much as many of us would like. To
put it in Dr. King’s words
, “Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be. We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was.”
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