When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now historic “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, only 20 percent of African Americans had graduated high school and so few had any access to institutions of higher education that only 3 percent had graduated from college. By comparison, for non-Hispanic whites, 43 percent had completed high school in 1960.
Fast forward to 2010, and the strides made by African Americans are substantial: 82 percent had graduated high school (91 percent for non-Hispanic whites). Among African Americans 25 to 29 years old, 19 percent had earned four-year college degrees.
No question that the Civil Rights Movement made a powerful difference in the lives of Americans who had been held in bondage then segregated and discriminated, for centuries. President Obama can attest to that.
But there is much still to accomplish. For every stride, there has been a step back — most recently by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to strike down the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states and localities with a history of discrimination to get clearance from the federal government on any new voting scheme. The court’s majority decided Congress must adopt a new formula, but this Do Nothing Congress sees no need.
And even as educational opportunities have improved, the threat of losing affirmative action goals at college campuses remains.
On the jobs front, the unemployment rate for blacks remains stuck in the double digits even as it dips to single digits for whites.
At 27.4 percent, the poverty rate among African Americans, according to the 2010 Census, stood at almost three times that of non-Hispanic whites, at 9.9 percent.
And as for housing, the Great Recession hit African Americans and Hispanics the hardest. Many young couples have lost their homes to foreclosure. So-called red-lining of minority neighborhoods by mortgage lenders erects another discriminatory barrier. And still to this day, despite laws meant to end discrimination in rental housing, people of color are turned away even as whites are given a green light to rent a home.
For every law passed to create equal opportunity regardless of race, gender, age, disability, creed or ethnicity, there are other laws — like Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law — that make a mockery of justice for blacks.
Today, on this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the Rev. King’s uplifting words to the multitude of blacks and whites who gathered on that sunny day on the Mall still ring true:
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. . . .
“We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: ‘For Whites Only.’ We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
“No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ . . .
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.
“It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”