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 legal protections 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.
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, president. The U.S. is a very different place than it was 50 years ago.
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.
That was then
The 1960s were tumultuous years indeed. During the long, hot 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.”
Economically, that was certainly true. In 1968, just 10 percent of whites lived below the poverty level, while nearly 34 percent of African-Americans did. Likewise, just 2.6 percent of white job seekers were unemployed, compared to 6.7 percent 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.
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
This is now
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.
some ways, we’ve barely budged as a people. Poverty is still too common
in the U.S. In 1968, 25 million Americans — roughly 13 percent of the
population — lived below poverty level. In 2016, 43.1 million – or more than 12.7 percent – do.
Today’s black poverty rate of 22 percent is almost three times that of whites. Compared to the 1968 rate of 32 percent, 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.
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 percent of households. In recent years, the percentage has risen as high as 72 percent.
This is important, but not because of some outmoded sexist ideal of the family. In the U.S., as across the Americas, there’s a powerful connection between poverty and female-headed households.
Americans today are also more dependent on government aid than they
were in 1968. Currently, almost 40 percent 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.
That’s higher than any other U.S. racial group. Just 21 percent of Latinos, 18 percent Asian-Americans and 17 percent of whites are on welfare.
Finding the bright spots
There are, of course, positive trends. Today, far more African-Americans graduate from college – 38 percent – 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 U.S. 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.
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 Thomas Sowell and Larry Elder.
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
What would MLK do?
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.”
achieve that, King wrote, the U.S. 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.”
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.”
This commentary was originally published by The Conversation