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The Unfinished March


The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Millions of Americans know that speech well enough to paraphrase its concluding passages. But there were nine other speeches that day, calling not just for legal rights, but for jobs and a living wage. On this 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it is critical to revisit this forgotten history of the march.

Yes, the march galvanized the nation, and the civil rights struggle it heralded was among the most inspiring and effective social movements in American—if not world—history. Today, we can celebrate blacks’ equal access to public accommodations, a law against racial discrimination in employment, and black voting rights because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the hard economic goals of the march, critical to transforming the life opportunities of African Americans, were not fully achieved. The organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom also demanded decent housing, adequate and integrated education, a federal jobs program for full employment, and a national minimum wage of over $13.001 an hour in today’s dollars.2

The key organizers of the march, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, understood that improving the socioeconomic position of African Americans required an end to both race- and class-based injustices in America (Anderson 1997, 239–240; March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963b, 3). In his speech at the march, Randolph, president of the Negro American Labor Council, stated:

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 Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white?

For Randolph and other marchers, expanding rights without significantly expanding economic opportunity would still leave African Americans economically disadvantaged.

Given that a societal commitment to four of the seven demands was not secured, the March for Jobs and Freedom is incomplete. Blacks in America today are:

  • Still in ghettos of poverty. The decent housing that marchers called for is still lacking. In 1963, Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, called for African Americans to “march from the rat-infested, over-crowded ghettos to decent, wholesome, unrestricted residential areas disbursed throughout our cities.” But today, nearly half of poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty; however, only a little more than a tenth of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods.
  • Still in segregated and unequal schools. Marchers demanded adequate and integrated education, but that has not been achieved. In 1963, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, noted that in the nine years since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, “our parents and their children have been met with either a flat refusal or a token action in school desegregation.” In the late 1960s, 76.6 percent of black children attended majority black schools. In 2010, 74.1 percent of black children attended majority nonwhite schools. These segregated schools do not have the same resources as schools serving white children, violating the core American belief in equality of opportunity.
  • Still twice as likely to be unemployed. Jobs for all have not been created. In 1963, Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers of America, asserted, “We will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of Americans, Negroes, are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs.” From the 1960s to today, the black unemployment rate has been about 2 to 2.5 times the white unemployment rate. In 2012, the black unemployment rate was 14.0 percent, 2.1 times the white unemployment rate (6.6 percent) and higher than the average national unemployment rate of 13.1 percent during the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1939.
  • Still struggling for a living wage. A minimum wage sufficient to lift working families out of poverty is not in place. In 1963, John Lewis, national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said, “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here—for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all.” After adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage today—$7.25—is worth $2.00 less than in 1968, and is nowhere close to a living wage. In 2011, a full-time year-round worker needed to earn $11.06 an hour to keep a family of four out of poverty. But more than a third of non-Hispanic black workers (36 percent) do not earn hourly wages high enough to lift a family of four out of poverty.

In this 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we must recommit to the “unfinished march.” This includes constant vigilance to sustain the march’s clear, but still vulnerable, victories. But just as important as sustaining the civil rights goals achieved, we must confront the goals still unmet.

Still in ghettos of poverty

In his speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, stated:

[Negro Americans] must march from the rat-infested, over-crowded ghettos to decent, wholesome, unrestricted residential areas disbursed throughout our cities. . . . They must march from the play areas in crowded and unsafe streets to the newly opened areas in the parks and recreational centers.

Fifty years later, African Americans still lack full access to decent, wholesome, and safe housing, in large part because black poverty remains high and is very concentrated.

Black poverty, as with poverty overall, declined dramatically through the 1960s, falling from a rate of 55.1 percent in 1959 to 32.2 percent in 1969. Since then, progress in reducing black poverty has been agonizingly slow and uneven. By 1989 the black poverty rate had only declined to 30.7 percent. While the tight labor markets of the late 1990s pushed black poverty to its lowest rate on record—22.5 percent in 2000—the black poverty rate drifted back up in the early 2000s during the anemic recovery from the 2001 recession. The Great Recession that began in December 2007 drove the black poverty rate back up to 27.6 percent by 2011. This was nearly three times the white poverty rate of 9.8 percent that year (U.S. Census Bureau 2012).

Arrested progress in the fight against poverty and residential segregation has helped concentrate many African Americans in some of the least desirable housing in some of the lowest-resourced communities in America. In addition to much higher poverty rates, blacks suffer much more from concentrated poverty. Nearly half (45 percent) of poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, but only a little more than a tenth (12 percent) of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods (Figure A).

Figure A

Percent of poor children living in areas of concentrated poverty, by race/ethnicity, 2006–2010 average

Race/Ethnicity Percent of poor children living in areas of concentrated poverty
White 12%
Hispanic 35%
Black 45%
Asian and Pacific Islander 21%
American Indian 39%
 

Note: "Concentrated poverty" is defined as a census tract with a poverty rate of 30 percent or higher.

Source: Kids Count (2012)

Concentrated poverty is correlated with a host of social and economic challenges. Children in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty experience more social and behavioral problems, have lower test scores, and are more likely to drop out of school (Kids Count 2012). Poorer cities tend to have higher crime rates (Kneebone and Raphael 2011, 12), and this relationship likely partially explains why black youth have the highest homicide mortality rates (National Center for Health Statistics 2012, 158–159).

Poor black neighborhoods also have environmental hazards that impact health. A very serious one is higher exposure to lead, which impedes learning, lowers earnings, and heightens crime rates (Acevedo-Garcia 2006, 131; Gould 2009; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2013). While rates of lead exposure have been declining for all races, African American children continue to have the highest exposure rate (Gould 2009; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2013). Poor black neighborhoods also “have a higher prevalence of alcohol and fast food outlets compared to wealthy and predominantly white neighborhoods” and their residents have “fewer opportunities to be physically active, due to higher crime rates and limited availability of green space” (Acevedo-Garcia 2006, 132).

Among poor children, white children have the lowest likelihood of residing in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, and thus the best opportunity to access middle-class community resources. In contrast, poor black children have the highest likelihood of living in concentrated poverty, and thus the worst access to middle-class community resources.

African Americans not only disproportionately lack decent housing in neighborhoods of opportunity, a significant number simply lack any housing. In recent years, blacks have made up nearly 40 percent of the population living in homeless shelters although they make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population (HUD 2012, 16). Undoubtedly, blacks are overrepresented among America’s homeless because they have the highest rate of “severely cost-burdened” renters. Individuals paying half or more of their total income on housing—the severely cost-burdened—are more likely to end up homeless.3

While decent housing is an important goal in and of itself, housing is also linked to health, education, employment, and wealth outcomes. For example, severely cost-burdened renters and homeowners, who are spending at least half of their income on housing, are much less able to save for things such as continued education for themselves or their children, and are thus less likely to reap the employment and wealth benefits advanced education brings. Thus, without greater access to decent housing, the struggle for black socioeconomic advancement will be dramatically harder.

Still in segregated and unequal schools

Speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom addressed the need for black children to gain access to adequate and integrated education.

“We will not stop our marching feet until our kids…can study a wide range without being cramped in Jim Crow schools,” vowed James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality.4

“[Negro Americans] must march from the congested ill-equipped schools, which breed dropouts, and which smother motivation to the well-equipped integrated facilities throughout the cities,” argued Whitney M. Young Jr.

Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, pointed out that in spite of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, “for nine years, our parents and their children have been met with either a flat refusal or a token action in school desegregation. Every added year of such treatment is a leg iron upon our men and women.”

Many more years have been added to the delay Wilkins decried. Nearly 60 years after the Brown decision, more than 50 years after the “Little Rock Nine” were escorted by federal troops into Little Rock Central High School, nearly three-fourths (74.1 percent) of black students still attend segregated schools, defined as majority nonwhite (as of 2010, as shown in Figure B). This is nearly the same share as in the late 1960s, when 76.6 percent of black children attended ma

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