With the high profile given the lifestyles of the rich and famous of today’s Black entertainers, professional athletes, Wall Street wizards and entrepreneurs, white collar professionals and even clergy, it is hard to imagine the extent of Black deprivation in the 1960s. When African-Americans descended on Washington, DC for the March in Washington in 1963 there was still a very real connection to the Civil War and its aftermath. As it was, just weeks before the march a special U.S. postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the war between the Union and the Confederacy, the first designed by a Black artist, had been issued. In 1963 Black life was still close enough to Reconstruction that African-Americans were still struggling for basic necessities under Jim Crow.
Our 21st century perspective tests our memories of an era just five decades ago when segregation was law in the south and many Blacks lived in squalid conditions with no indoor plumbing and denied an education despite the Brown decision of a decade earlier. While Blacks in northern states did not live under Jim Crow, they were being isolated in communities in large cities that were being rapidly abandoned and left for dead by whites. As rough as life might have been in Birmingham, Jackson, and other southern outposts, a different kind of economic nightmare was unfolding in Newark, Gary, Detroit and most of our nation’s Rustbelt cities. In other words, Black life was rough in 1963 and some leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were beginning to sense that the attainment of civil rights were not enough for African-Americans to become fully democratized citizens.
How bad was it in the 1960s for African-Americans? We went back and checked the definitive source for data on African-Americans in the 1960s, “The Negro Almanac,” a volume authored by Dr. Roscoe C, Brown Jr. and Dr. Harry A. Ploski and first published in 1967. The numbers are startling.
• Six in 10 nonwhite families were poor in 1963
• The incidence of children’s poverty in 1963 was almost four times as great among the nonwhite population as compared to white families with male heads of households
• The sharpest decline in the proportion of substandard housing units among nonwhite households from 1950 to 1960 occurred in urban areas
• The greatest concentration of substandard housing in 1960 was in the South, over three-fifths of the units occupied by nonwhites and one-fifth of those occupied by whites
• In 1964 Black family incomes were about 56% of white family incomes
• In 1964 37% of nonwhite families in the nation had incomes below $3,000 compared to white families
On March 25, 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a press release detailing the findings in a landmark report from the Council of Economic Advisers that gave an estimate of the cost to the nation of racial discrimination. Three findings were most prominent. We use the language of the report for historical accuracy.
1. If Negroes received the same average pay as whites having the same education, the personal income of Negroes and the Nation would be $12.8 billion higher.
2. If Negroes also had the same educational attainments as white workers, and earned the same pay and experienced the same unemployment as whites, their personal income – and that of the Nation – would be $20.6 billion higher.
3. The entire economy would benefit from better education of Negro workers and an end to job discrimination. Industry would earn additional profits. The total Gross National Product would rise by an estimated $23 billion, or an extra 3.7%.
What is apparent is that not only African-Americans but the nation has suffered from the effects of discrimination since Reconstruction. The economic status of Blacks at the time of the 1963 March on Washington and the conditions cited by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers tells a story of a nation that has cheated itself due to its inability to address racism. As much as the defenders of Jim Crow thought they were inflicting harm upon Blacks, they were cheating their future generations and setting up the country for the economic crisis that is upon us today. Had economic disparities been addressed 50 years ago, the nation would likely have avoided the deep economic meltdown we can’t seem to shake.
These statistics are what compelled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to turn his attention to Chicago and start laying the groundwork for the next chapter in the fight to reclaim America from its past. The grim economic reality spurred the creation of Operation Breadbasket led by a young Rev. Jesse Jackson and plans for a Poor Peoples’ Campaign in Washington, DC. Economic conditions inspired the planning for Soul City by CORE leader Floyd McKissick and began to spur a self-empowerment movement among Blacks in American cities championed by the Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam.
The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will be held in the shadow of the unfinished agenda of economic parity and the nation’s continued economic decline precipitated by its refusal to forcefully confront discrimination and racism.