In late August of 1963, on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, a quarter million demonstrators converged on the National Mall in the nation’s capital to partake in what would become one of the largest human rights demonstrations in U.S. history.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as it became known, drew a majority African-American presence. Demonstrators arrived by the busload — many from Southern states where Jim Crow segregation policies were still alive and well — to demand greater legal and economic rights. They marched peacefully towards the Lincoln Memorial, and listened to the impassioned speeches of some of most outspoken civil rights leaders of the day, including Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream” address. The speakers articulated a clear, carefully crafted set of demands, underscoring, as King stated, “the fierce urgency of now.”
The demand included the passage of new binding pieces of civil rights legislation that, among other things, guaranteed voting rights, increased political representation in Congress, eliminated school segregation, and imposed heavy financial penalties and government lawsuits against agencies that violated the Equal Protection Clause.
Equally important, although less commonly highlighted in many history texts, was the demand for greater economic equality. The movement’s leaders called for a federal jobs program and a nearly two-fold increase in the national minimum wage — to $2 an hour (equivalent to about $13 dollars today). Leaders also urged federal enforcement to end employment discrimination, as well as policies and programs that would increase access to decent housing and adequate public accommodations.
In his speech that day, King emphasized the urgency of these goals :
“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
There is no dispute that the March helped usher in a period of tremendous progress: less than a year later, Congress passed the sweeping Civil Rights Act of 1964 , and by 1965, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law as well. Today, 50 years hence, the results of these victories, and the subsequent gains in equality, are clearly evident, marked not the least by the election of America’s first black president, an achievement that to many was unimaginable 50 years ago. Today, high school graduation rates among blacks have nearly quadrupled. Voter participation has also grown markedly, as has life expectancy.
On August 28, 2013, thousands gathered on the National Mall to commemorate the 1963 march and the tremendous impact it had. Some of the featured speakers, though, noted that many of the demands still remain unrealized, particularly on the economic front. Standing in the footsteps of King at the Lincoln Memorial, President Obama underscored this sentiment:
“In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination — the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?”
Even as a increasing number of African Americans today have successfully risen the class ladder, attaining prominent positions in politics, business, and academia, huge economic gaps between blacks and whites still remain. The majority of black children today grow up in areas of concentrated poverty and attend segregated, often severely under-resourced schools. The unemployment rate among blacks is double that of whites, and more than a third of black adults with jobs work for poverty level wages, according to the Economic Policy Institute. (The infographic, at right — produced by EPI — illustrates some of the March’s “unfinished business”).
Meanwhile, the poverty rate among blacks is more than double that of whites, while average annual household income is almost $30,000 less, according to Pew Research. Blacks are also disproportionally represented in the nation’s prison population and experience significantly higher rates of homicide than any other race.
The series of interactive charts below illustrate where various gaps between whites and blacks have narrowed, widened, or remained about the same. Most of the data was collected by Pew Research, which offers a more detailed analysis of some of these figures, including relative rates for Hispanics and Asians where the data are available.
Note: In 2012, there were roughly 41 million blacks living in the U.S., comprising about 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census. Whites, meanwhile, numbered roughly 245 million, or almost about 78 percent of the population. The figures below include rates for total whites and blacks (not just non-Hispanic).
Where gaps have narrowed
Where gaps have widened or stayed about the same