The gathering proved to be a brief, but hopeful, interlude between outbreaks of violence and expressions of racial hatred. Within weeks, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young girls. A little more than two months later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the cause of civil rights in part to pay tribute to Kennedy’s memory.
In the half a century since those tumultuous days, progress has been evident in many places. African Americans now vote in percentages nearly as high or in some cases higher than whites, including in some of the states of the Confederacy. Education levels for blacks have increased demonstrably, although they still lag behind those of whites. A thriving black middle and upper-middle class has expanded significantly.
But economic divisions remain. “We talk about income inequality,” said Signe-Mary McKernan of the Urban Institute, “but the racial wealth gap is much larger.”
White families have accumulated wealth worth about six times that of black families. White incomes top black incomes by an average of two to one. Over the past two decades, those gaps have changed little.
Unemployment differentials are largely unchanged from the 1960s. Whether in good times or bad, African Americans are about twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts. Blacks raised in middle-class surroundings are far more likely to slip down the economic ladder than are whites.
“We still have two largely separate Americas,” said historian David Garrow, author of “Bearing the Cross,” a history of the King years and the civil rights movement. “The fact that tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of upper-middle-class Americans have managed to access privileged America should not at all distract our attention from people — and not just blacks — in this country who do not have educational or economic opportunity.”
Meanwhile, there are new conflicts over voting rights. Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court neutered the most important section of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 required many states and local jurisdictions in the Old South, and some others, to gain pre-clearance from the Justice Department before changing voting laws.
The court said discrimination has not ended but ruled that the criteria that determined which states were covered under pre-clearance were out of date. At the same time, many African Americans, and others, view efforts by a number of state legislatures to enact voter identification laws and other new regulations as aimed directly at their community.
The country is in a far different place today, its ambitions tempered by limited budgets, by the frustrations and failures of past efforts to alleviate some of these problems and by deep political divisions. Obama’s speech will be closely examined for how he interprets the meaning of the march and how he deals with problems that most afflict African Americans without appealing for solutions considered racially based.
Many of those who will be in Washington this week say the commemoration of the march should not be a celebration. “It’s very important not just to commemorate the march but to have us recognize that we’re 50 years away from that event and if we examine progress, it’s clearly a mixed blessing,” said Margaret Simms of the Urban Institute.
Robert Dallek, who has written histories of the Kennedy and Johnson presidencies, quoted one of his mentors, the late historian Richard Hofstadter, as saying that “America is the only country that believes it was born perfect and strives for improvement.” As far as the country has come in the 50 years since the March on Washington, much remains to be done — as it always has.