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
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
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.
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, president. 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 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% 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
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
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.
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%.
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.
That’s higher than any other US racial group.
Just 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
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
Sowell and Larry Elder.
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
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.”