How Far Have We Come Since The March On Washington?

Aug 26, 2013
Originally published on August 26, 2013 3:44 pm

Thousands of people streamed onto the National Mall in Washington this past weekend, as part of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

On Wednesday, the actual anniversary of the event, thousands will gather at the Lincoln Memorial for what organizers are calling a “commemoration and call to action.”

So what has and hasn’t been achieved between 1963 and now, particularly for black Americans?

NPR’s Gene Demby has been thinking about this. He writes about race, ethnicity and culture as part of the network’s Code Switch team.


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Thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in Washington this past weekend as part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.

TODD ENDO: That march, it was for people who are racial minorities or economically minorities or politically less powerful, same reason I'm here today.

QUAN NIVENS: Jobs, justice and freedom 50 years later, and we still have a lot of work to do. We really do.

ERIC COLE: Well, I'm not looking for any miracles. I mean, I'm a realist and I'm hoping at least the consciousness will be raised.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Todd Endo(ph), Quan Nivens(ph) and Eric Cole(ph) on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Saturday. Another march will take place on Wednesday, the actual anniversary of the historic civil rights event. President Obama will speak and thousands are expected at the Lincoln Memorial for what organizers are calling a commemoration and call to action.

So what has and has not been achieved since 1963, particularly for black Americans? NPR's Gene Demby has been thinking about it. He writes about race, ethnicity and culture as part of the network's Code Switch team. And he joins us from NPR in Washington. And, Gene, first of all, what was it like at the rally this weekend?

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: It was hot. Apparently, the weather was about the same as it was 50 years ago, and it was really, really ethnically diverse. One of the things that was really fascinating was how much contemporary events had kind of filtered into this commemoration. A lot of people holding up Trayvon Martin signs, a lot of people protesting racial profiling and call for prison reform, things like that.

CHAKRABARTI: But, Gene, as you know, it's worth noting that the original 1963 march was billed as a march on Washington for jobs and freedom.

DEMBY: Right. So much of the '63 march was about employment and was about alleviating black unemployment, which was at the time twice as high as white unemployment, which is, of course, their case today. Martin Luther King, the NAACP, the march's organizers, had some really specific economic policies demand.

CHAKRABARTI: So let's take a look on some of those specific demands, starting with a call to raise the minimum wage. Now, I was just taking a look at the program and the specific demand made in '63 was, quote, "a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living," still contentious today in 2013.

DEMBY: Yes, still one of those issues that we're still kind of wrestling with, right? The number that they wanted in 1963 was $2 an hour. That would be the federal minimum wage. Our current minimum wage hasn't kept up with inflation, hasn't increased in about four years. It's pretty safe to say that that goal by the marchers has gone unrealized.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. Now, just a minute ago, you mentioned that in 1963, unemployment amongst black Americans was twice the rates that it was amongst white Americans. And we were looking at numbers from the Pew Research Center that says that that disparity has basically stayed the same on average for the past 60 years. That unemployment today amongst black Americans is twice the rate that it is amongst white Americans, so a continuing frustration there as well.

DEMBY: That's right. Even in the best economic times, black unemployment looks similar to recession levels. That has all kinds of serious consequences in health outcomes, in economic outcomes.

CHAKRABARTI: So let's talk a little bit about another aspect of the workplace, and that is discrimination in public and private hiring. They had called for an end to that discrimination in the '63 march. And there have been a number of laws, anti-discrimination laws, put on the books since then, but were there any immediate changes after the march?

DEMBY: The march's biggest tangible achievement was gathering national momentum behind the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voter Rights Act in 1965. The Civil Rights Act in 1964 went a long way to prohibit discrimination in hiring, and it gave people an avenue to challenge or sue for what they thought was discriminatory practices. That's helped non-whites and that's helped women tremendously.

CHAKRABARTI: But, Gene, in your Code Switch post, you made the good point that discrimination itself has sort of changed over time.

DEMBY: Right. You can't slam the door on the face of - for black applicant for a job. But one of the things we're finding is that a lot of the way discrimination works now is about preference and also social networks. So I spoke to Algernon Austin, who is an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, and he pointed to a study that found that black men who had no criminal records were less likely to get positive callbacks on job applications than white men with criminals records. And people who had black-sounding were less likely to be called back for job interviews than people who did not. And so there's a way in which that kind of stuff is much harder to kind of legislate against.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Gene, one more goal from '63 that I want to ask you about, and that is a call for an end to school segregation, which is interesting because, of course, in 1954, the Supreme Court had barred segregation in schools, and that was before the March on Washington. So what was going on there?

DEMBY: Desegregation has been a really mixed bag. And one of the great ironies is that the South actually achieved greater levels of integration than the rest of the country. A study by the Civil Rights Project of UCLA found that resegregation was happening really quickly in the South again. Increasingly, black students and Latino students were more likely to go to school in schools that were overwhelmingly non-white.

And so we see now that the educational outcomes of black children and white children are really stark. White children are twice as likely to enter from college, and that disparity informs - it perpetuates and explains a bunch of the big gaps in life outcomes that we still see between blacks and whites.

CHAKRABARTI: So, Gene, this is really interesting to me because we've been discussing sort of demands made in '63, and what was or wasn't achieved. But on the one hand, no one can really say that 2013 is the same - that America's the same as it was in 1963 because the country has taken some strides forward, taken a lot of strides forward. So I'm wondering on the weekend when you were at this commemorative march, what were people saying? Were they saying that their goals are still the same as they were in 1963, or has the focus shifted a little?

DEMBY: The Reverend Al Sharpton was one of the principal organizers of the march on Saturday. The anecdote that he told that got the biggest reaction was the story of a man who said that he thought that there was too much attention being paid to race and civil rights and that, you know, civil rights wasn't the reason why he had this great resume and civil rights wasn't the reason that he had all these kind of professional academic accomplishments.

And Sharpton's response was, yeah, you're right. Civil rights didn't do that work for you. But civil rights made it possible for someone to read your resume in the first place. And it got this thunderous response and people clapped and Amened. So even if people were, you know, commemorated the march, there is still this sense of things left undone.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, that's Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team, which explores race, culture and ethnicity. There's a link to his assessment of the March on Washington, "What It Called For, And What We Got," at our website, Gene, thank you so much.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Meghna.


CHAKRABARTI: Well, coming up, a lot of Americans dream of owning a farm, and these days, more and more people are buying farms after they retire. But in their 60s, can they keep up with the demands? We'll find out in just a minute. HERE AND NOW.

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