Black Americans Mostly Left Behind by Progress Since Dr. King’s Death

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.

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…

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