What’s changed for African Americans since 1963, by the numbers

August 22, 2013
The landmark civil rights event, called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," took place on Aug. 28, 1963. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)
The landmark civil rights event, called the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," took place on Aug. 28, 1963. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. National Archives)

As the nation prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington over the next week, it's worth asking: how much have things changed for African Americans since Aug. 28, 1963?

The U.S. Census Bureau has compiled a slew of statistics that tell at least part of the story. In many ways African Americans are participating more fully in the nation's civic life, but in many sectors they are still lagging behind their white counterparts.

One place where African Americans have outpaced their white counterparts is when it comes to participation in election. In 1964 the portion of all Americans 18 or older who voted was 69.3 percent; this has dropped to 56.5 percent last year. By contrast, the rate of African Americans voting in presidential elections has risen from 58.5 percent to 62 percent during that same period. The 2012 election marked the first time African Americans voted at a higher rate than whites, according to Census data.

The number of African-American elected officials has also risen dramatically since researchers started tracking it in 1970. Forty-three years ago there were 1,469 black elected officials nationwide, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies; in 2011 there were roughly 10,500 such officials.

In education, blacks have also made tremendous strides. In 1964, 25.7 percent of blacks age 25 and over had completed at least four years of high school; that percentage stood at 85 percent last year. During that same period the number of blacks with a high school diploma rose from 2.4 million to 20.3 million. Between 1964 and 2012 the percentage of blacks age 25 and over who completed at least four years of college increased from 3.9 percent to 21.2 percent, with the number of blacks boasting at least a bachelor’s degree rising from 365,000 to 5.1 million.

And the poverty rate among African Americans has also dropped dramatically over the past five decades. Back in 1966 the poverty rate for all races in the United States was 14.7 percent, but it was 41.8 percent for African Americans. Two years ago the poverty rate for African Americans was 27.6 percent, according to the Census, but that was still nearly double the national poverty rate of 15 percent.

In another warning sign, the homeownership rate for blacks has barely budged in decades. It stood at 41.6 percent in 1970, the first year those numbers were collected, and measured 43.4 percent in 2011.

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Sean Sullivan | August 22, 2013