The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., August 16, 1965.
The commemoration march was last weekend, but today marks the official anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that featured the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s now famous "I have a dream" speech, and which solidified the struggle for civil rights in the nation's collective conscience. It is fitting to take stock of the issues that drew a quarter million people to the Lincoln Memorial, where progress has been made and where problems still exist.
For a nation that just emerged from the controversy surrounding the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, it should be painfully obvious that race remains a divisive issue in this country. For many Americans, the problems are not as stark as they were 50 years ago. It may be hard for many today to imagine a time of such blatant segregation or of the open violence and opposition civil rights leaders faced as they marched and demanded simple freedoms. It would have been just as hard back then for many to imagine an America with a black president or of the open public acceptance of integration that is evident today. But while the outward signs of progress are obvious, the divisions between black and white remain stubbornly hard to fix in many ways.
One of the chief demands of marchers in 1963 was for jobs. All these years later, little has changed. As the Washington Post reported recently, the black unemployment rate has remained about double the white rate consistently since 1963. Citing the Economic Policy Institute, the Post said today's white unemployment rate is 6.6 percent, whereas the black rate is 12.6 percent. In 1963 it was 5 percent and 10.9 percent, respectively. Rates fluctuate with economic conditions, but this consistent disparity speaks to inequities in education as well as in family structure, both of which are key to opportunities.
The Schott Foundation for Public Education looks closely at the high school graduation rates of black males, which it pegged at about 52 percent in 2011. That was considered an improvement over earlier reports, but it still was far below the 78 percent white graduation rate. Black males are an important demographic, as their inability to obtain education or find meaningful work also affects the formation of families and the development of future generations.
The declining strength of families over the last 50 years has been a problem for all Americans, but especially so for blacks. The federal government reports that 72 percent of black babies born in 2010 were born to unwed mothers, compared to 29 percent for non-Hispanic white babies. This disparity is the most troubling of all issues concerning civil rights and opportunities, considering children born into unwed households face numerous disadvantages over those born in traditional two-parent homes, including the greater likelihood of performing poorly in school and experiencing a host of societal ills from substance abuse to crime.
Marchers in 1963 weren't concerned about family issues because traditional families remained largely solid regardless of race. But today family disintegration is a problem with far more damaging effects than the blatant discrimination faced all those years ago, and yet few people seem to take notice of it.
The march of 50 years ago remains a moment in U.S. history frozen in amber. It likely wouldn't have happened in today's world, where viral YouTube videos and Tweets can have a greater impact than a march and where traditional media often lacks the patience for well-crafted, lengthy speeches.
It is important, however, that the messages of freedom and equality from that day remain imprinted on the national psyche and etched in our collective minds as goals for a better world. But it is just as important that we understand where our energies for change should be directed in a modern age.