News Civil Rights Today Essay

Civil Rights: How Far Have We Come?

By Kathy Wilmore

On August 28, 1993, more than 100,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. They went there to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 1963 march has been called "the most magnificent demonstration of interracial unity that this nation had ever seen." Millions of TV viewers bore witness as the world heard King's electrifying "I Have a Dream" speech for the first time. The marchers — black and white, young and old, rich and poor — held hands and sang a song called "We Shall Overcome." It expressed their hope that "black and white together" would some day live in peace, equality, and understanding. The march was a high point in the U.S. black civil-rights movement.

Civil rights are the freedoms and rights that a person has as a member of a community, state, or nation. In the U.S., these rights are guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution and acts of Congress.

Since the 1960s, many laws have been passed to guarantee civil rights to all Americans. But the struggle continues. Today, not only blacks, but many other groups — including women, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, people with disabilities, homosexuals, the homeless, and other minorities — are waging civil-rights campaigns.

The theme of the 1963 March on Washington was "jobs, justice, and peace." The 1993 anniversary march had the same theme — proof that, although African-Americans have made great strides forward, there is still much to be done. Let's take a look at three problem areas — housing, education, and the political arena — where many African-Americans still do not enjoy equality with other Americans.

HOUSING: A TWO-HEADED PROBLEM

Most people agree that decent housing is a basic right. Yet millions of Americans live in substandard housing — or have no housing at all. They live that way because they cannot afford better — or are kept out of better housing by discrimination (unfair treatment).

Many African-Americans fit into one or both of those categories. "Black people, especially women, still are at the bottom of the economic ladder, [even though] we've been in the workforce for hundreds of years," says Susan L. Taylor, editor in chief of a magazine for African-American women.

Housing that poor people can afford is often in terrible condition. Many landlords with low-income tenants neglect their property, not bothering to make even the most basic repairs. Few poor tenants can afford the time or money to fight back. Buildings owned by city or federal agencies may be no better.

A sizable number of African-Americans can afford better housing, but are kept out by racism. It is against the law to deny someone housing because of his or her race. But fair-housing laws are bent or broken all the time. Real-estate agents "forget" to show blacks houses in white neighborhoods. Landlords with several applicants for an apartment "just happen" to choose a white applicant instead of a black one.

Government officials and civil-rights leaders are still looking for solutions to the twin housing problems of poverty and racism. If you had to come up with a plan, what would it be?

STILL IN A DIFFERENT CLASS

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated (separate) schools are unconstitutional. That ruling served as a powerful tool in the struggle to improve education for millions of young African-Americans. But the fight is not over yet.

Civil-rights laws have made it illegal to deny a student admittance to a school because of his or her race. But in many parts of the country, schools are still segregated, if only by circumstance. Most kids attend a school close to where they live. Since blacks and whites still often live apart, they often learn apart as well.

The same conditions that cause housing problems for African-Americans also harm young blacks' chances for quality educations and good jobs. If a neighborhood is poor, so is its public school, in most cases. Kids in well-off public schools and expensive private schools have up-to-date textbooks, computers, VCRs, and lots of extracurricular activities to round out their education. But kids in inner-city schools with smaller budgets have to make do with old equipment, outdated books, and few or no special programs.

Even when blacks and whites attend the same schools, they often run into another kind of segregation. Unless teachers, school officials, parents, or students make a special effort, white kids tend to hang out with other whites, and black kids with other blacks. "If Michael Jackson thinks, 'It don't matter if you're black or white,' he should visit my school," writes Brian Jarvis, 16, in a Newsweek article about "the great divide" between the races at his public school.

How equal is education for blacks and whites where you live? If it works well, why? If it doesn't, how might it be fixed?

CASTING VOTES FOR A BETTER FUTURE

In 1963, when John Lewis was 23 and the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, all 535 members of the U.S. Congress were white. Today, Lewis is one of 38 blacks in the House of Representatives. (There is one black in the Senate.)

After more than 200 years of hope, heartache, and hard work, African-Americans are closer than ever to having true representatives in the House. (African-Americans are 12.4 percent of the U.S. population and 9 percent of House members.)

To increase their impact on national policies and programs. African-American members of Congress often work together as the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Says CBC member Ronald V. Dellums (Democrat of California): "We get up every day with the idealism and the optimism that our participation can bring about change."

Increasing numbers of African-Americans are serving as governors, mayors, and local officials. African-Americans are also making their power felt at the voting booth. Politicians, white and black, seek their support in election campaigns.

There is no doubt that African-Americans have made great gains since 1963. But black leaders say that problems still remain.

"In 1963," says Lewis, "there was a greater sense of purpose and optimism among African-Americans about the possibility of progressive [forward-moving] change. . . . [But today we see]. . .that racism is more pervasive [widespread] than previously thought."

So what comes next? Should we be satisfied with the progress already made? Or should Americans — black and white together — work harder to achieve the 1963 march's goals of jobs, justice, and peace?

"Because they marched, America became more free and fair," President Barack Obama said yesterday (Aug. 28) as he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

But 50 years after the March for Jobs and Freedom, when Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his stirring "I Have a Dream" speech, gaps between blacks and whites persist. Many of the issues remain the same as they did in 1963: Poverty, unemployment, voting rights and racial disparities in education. New burdens include the criminalization and mass imprisonment of blacks, both adults and children. [7 Reasons America Still Needs Civil Rights Movements]

Progress has stalled on civil rights, Obama said yesterday. He encouraged the tens of thousands of marchers at the memorial to continue fighting for civil rights. "America, I know the road will be long, but I know we can get there," Obama said.

Noliwe Rooks, a Cornell University professor and expert in racial inequality in education, agrees that America still needs a civil rights movement. "These inequities literally cost the country billions of dollars each year, and yet we do nothing as the problem gets worse," Rooks told LiveScience. "We simply have not had any federal legislation to substantively address racial segregation since the [1968 Fair Housing Act] and there doesn't seem to be the will to do so today," she said. (The act was meant to help end racial discrimination by homeowners and landlords.)

Talking about race

But Rooks thinks the current political and social climate makes it difficult to discuss race. "I absolutely think that we need a civil rights movement today, but I often joke that we could never have one focused on race and racial inequity, because everyone involved would be called a racist, or be accused of playing the race card," she said. "I think that is part of the reason we don't really seem to have noticed that in many places racial segregation has returned in full force and with it two distinctly different paths for many Americans based on race," Rooks said.

Surveys and polls show dwindling support among whites for civil rights. For example, a Pew Research Center poll found 70 percent of blacks think they are treated less fairly than whites in dealings with the police. Only 37 percent of whites said the same.

"There was broader popular support among whites in the 1960s for [changing] these kinds of inequalities," said Clarence Lusane, an expert in politics and race relations at American University in Washington, D.C. "That doesn't exist today." [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

Poverty and jobs

Today, though the black middle class has grown to about 10 percent of all black households, the unemployment rate remains twice that of whites (12.6 percent vs. 6.6 percent in 2012). Only 12 percent of white children live in areas of concentrated poverty, compared with 45 percent of black children, according to a 2012 report from the Economic Policy Institute.

The 1963 March on Washington was organized by A. Philip Randolph, who founded the first black labor union. Economic equality and jobs were as important to the marchers as freedom. "Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them," Randolph said in his 1963 speech.

The poor are missing from modern discussions about civil rights, Lusane told LiveScience. "The language that comes from most policymakers is about saving the middle class, which is true, but there are also millions of middle class who are about to be much poorer," he said. The population of poor Americans in the suburbs, those living below the federal poverty line, grew by 64 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the Brookings Institution.

But unlike the 1960s, there is no big push to fix the effects of poverty in America, Lusane said. "I would argue that we haven't seen that in decades."

Education

Schools are more segregated now than they were 30 years ago. Thirty percent of black students attend schools where classrooms are 90 to 100 percent black or Latino, according to a 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project. White children go to schools where only 32 percent of students lives in poverty, but black students attend schools where more than half of students are poor (59 percent.)

But even when schools are racially mixed, students of color still face racial stereotypes, as they are shunted into special education more frequently than whites, and get less access to gifted programs and advanced placement classes. Government policies have also shifted the burden of paying for college onto students, creating a student debt crisis that limits access to higher education.

"What we have is an apartheid schooling system where your skin color and your ZIP code really decide where you have an opportunity to learn and follow your dreams," said Travis Gosa, a Cornell University professor whose research focuses on African-American youth and education.

Prison

Thanks to the War on Drugs, there are more blacks in the correctional system today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than in slavery in 1850, according to research by Michelle Alexander, a professor at Ohio State University. Blacks are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, according to an American Civil Liberties Union report. Enforcing marijuana laws costs about $3.6 billion a year, the report said.

But even without arrests for drugs, blacks are put in prison at rates six times higher than whites, the NAACP finds. Controversial stop-and-frisk practices target people with black or brown skin color. In New York City, where a federal judge recently found the policy violates minorities' civil rights, only 10 percent of encounters result in arrests or tickets. "The humiliation an individual has to live with from day to day, it almost causes you to sour on the system," said Robert Harris, a Cornell University expert in African-American history.

Voting rights

Criminal records deny voting rights and lead to job, education and housing discrimination. Across the country, 13 percent of black men have lost the right to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The disenfranchisement, combined with new efforts by states to curtail voting rights, remind Harris of the post-Reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War.

"We live in an era where the old Jim Crow segregation has become Mr. James Crow, Esq.," Harris told LiveScience. "It used be raw, blatant, 'You're not allowed here,' and 'You can't vote,'" he said. "Now they say everyone is able to vote, but then there are laws passed reminiscent of the old understanding clauses during the post-Reconstruction era, which were used to disenfranchise African-Americans," he said. The understanding clauses were "literacy" tests used to exclude black voters. [Busted: 6 Civil War Myths]

The golden anniversary of the March on Washington is a reminder, Harris said: "African-Americans have to be more conscious of defending our rights. We can't let our guard down."

Email Becky Oskin or follow her @beckyoskin. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on LiveScience.

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