A half-century after the ‘dream’: 10 signposts on America’s race journey

Story highlights

Since 1963, A few "signposts" in race relations and blacks' well-being stand out

Key legislation ended legal segregation, advanced political power

King's assassination robbed movement of a moral voice and master strategist

Inner-city strife, 1973 oil embargo, war on drugs spelled socioeconomic disaster

Editor’s Note: Steven A. Holmes covered race for eight years at The New York Times and was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper’s 2000 “How Race is Lived in America” series. He is now executive director in CNN’s Office of Standards and Practices.

CNN  — 

So we’ve gone from Martin to Martin. The five decades from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream” to Trayvon Martin’s death have been the most tumultuous in the country’s racial history since the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Blacks have seen progress and regression; triumphs and disappointments; great leaps forward and today’s racial stalemate. Charismatic leaders have flashed across the scene and burned out quickly. Others have lasted as spokesmen for African-Americans for decades – too long in the eyes of some people, black and white alike.

New movements such as those fighting for the rights of Latinos, women and gays have become valuable allies while, at the same time, diverting money and attention from the cause of African-Americans.

Courts and government policies have at times boosted black progress and at other points been a millstone around their necks. Black leaders have been brilliant tacticians and have made costly mistakes.

The 50 years since the March on Washington have produced a number of “signposts”: events and trends that have shaped the civil rights struggle and today’s racial landscape. Ten stand out as having the most impact over time on the well-being of blacks and whites and on their underlying attitudes toward each other. Some of the signposts are very familiar; some are more obscure. Some propelled the nation toward racial harmony; some became significant roadblocks. Many have changed American society in ways that extend beyond race. All changed the arc of racial history.

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The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act

These two landmark pieces of legislation in effect brought an end to legalized segregation. Though the Supreme Court had said the doctrine of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional in education more than a decade earlier, it wasn’t until the passage of these two laws that legalized Jim Crow was outlawed in virtually all aspects of American society. There have been arguments about how strongly the laws have been enforced. But, the main impact was to put the power of the federal government, particularly the federal courts, on the side of African-Americans – and others, including whites – who have felt the lash of discrimination.

The law enacted to protect African-Americans has had an impact far beyond race. At the last minute, Southern conservatives added language to have the act cover bias based on gender, figuring that would kill the bill. It stayed in and later would become the basis, not only fighting discrimination against women in hiring and promotion, but also combating sexual harassment in the workplace.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act

Often lumped together with the other civil rights measures of the 1960s, the Voting Rights Act deserves special mention because of how much it fundamentally reshaped the American political environment. Freed of the restraints imposed on them in the South, African-Americans flocked to the polls over the years electing black officials and producing radical changes in both Democratic and Republican parties. In 1970, five years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, there were 1,470 black elected officials throughout the country. Today there are more than 10,000.

But the impact did not stop there. Black voters became a force to be catered to within the Democratic Party. Since 1976, only one candidate – Michael Dukakis in 1988, mainly because his main rival, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, siphoned off African-American support – has secured the Democratic presidential nomination without winning the majority of black votes in the primaries.

On the Republican side, the Voting Rights Act began a migration of conservative Southern whites from the Democratic Party to the GOP, where they pushed Republicans further to the right not only on racial issues, but also with regard to crime, national security, taxes, government spending, abortion and gay rights. The Voting Rights Act, says David Bositis, a senior analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that specializes in racial issues, “brought fundamentalist Protestants into the Republican Party and gave the party a Southern flavor that persists to this day.”

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Inner-city riots and the rise of Black Power

Starting with unrest in New York City’s Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods, American cities suffered through five consecutive summers of major unrest in its inner cities. The riots – or urban rebellions, depending on your political philosophy – in places such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit shook white America and hastened white flight from the cities and into the suburbs. Detroit went from being 28% black seven years before its devastating 1967 riot to 43% black three years afterward. By 2000 it was 81% black. Fear of similar disturbances contributed to similar white exodus in places like St. Louis and Gary, Indiana.

As whites fled, businesses and jobs went with them. While fear of further disturbances prompted federal, state and local governments to pour cash into programs to revitalize the inner cities, government aid could not make up for the flight of businesses and the lack of new private investment. Left behind was a ravaged urban landscape of concentrated poverty, poor schools, violence and deteriorating family structure that has devastated the black community and negatively affected white attitudes toward African-Americans.

The riots’ most significant legacy, however, was the shift in black ideology. The disturbances accelerated an already growing impatience with the slow pace of progress and a belief that efforts toward integration were a fool’s errand. What emerged was a new and strident philosophy of separation from whites – either physical or psychological. Blacks demanded their own leadership; their own institutions, their own organizations, even their own holidays such as Kwanzaa.

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The movement brought some clear benefits: a burst of pride in black history and black culture; a dramatic increase in the number of African-Americans in leadership positions, especially politics, and a marked increase in opportunity as race-based affirmative action programs pushed by this new movement opened up union jobs, government employment, particularly at the local level, and admission to elite universities. All these contributed mightily to a burgeoning black middle class.

But the gains did not come without costs. The new militancy essentially drove whites away from the civil rights movement. In 1961, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee began the Freedom Rides, the group was about 20% white. Five years later it was virtually all black and its leader, Stokely Carmichael, was a leading apostle of black power. For decades after the inception of the NAACP, whites, including nationally recognized religious and labor leaders, made up a significant part of its board of directors. For 20 years starting in the early 1990s there was only one. The exodus of whites from the movement robbed it of access to money, influence and managerial expertise that was never fully made up by appeals to black professionals.

Nowhere was the double-edged sword of the black power movement felt more acutely than in the political arena. Fueled by a view that only blacks can represent the interests and aspiration of African-Americans, civil rights groups pushed for the creation of overwhelming black legislative districts, especially in the South, to ensure the election of black candidates. The result was to concentrate black voters, the most reliably liberal Democrats, into districts with huge African-American majorities, leaving the adjacent districts overwhelmingly white, more conservative – and easy pickings for Republicans.

The strategy of creating super-majority black districts is one of the leading causes for Republican dominance in the House of Representatives and in state legislatures across the South – and in the marginalization of black political power. In 1994 when this strategy was gathering full steam, 99.5% of black state lawmakers in the South served in the party that held power in their state legislature. Today only 4.8% do.

“Right now, at the state level, African-Americans have no say in Southern politics,” says Bositis.

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The King assassination

The death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the seminal events in the half-century after the March on Washington. His murder removed a master strategist, a strong moral voice and someone who was to become an icon to blacks and whites alike – though it’s easy to forget how much he was vilified by whites while he was still alive.

Coming during the advent of black militancy and the emergence of groups such as the Black Panther Party, King’s death frightened whites and made many more susceptible to “law and order” rhetoric from politicians.

“Martin Luther King’s death left a powerful moral and political vacuum in America,” says Peniel Joseph, director of the Center of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. “His campaign to end poverty and antiwar activism were coalescing into a powerful movement shortly before his death. Black Power revolutionaries such as Stokely Carmichael respected King and might have been part of a broad-based human rights coalition.”

Whether King would have worked with the new militants and softened their tough rhetoric and tactics or whether King would have been drawn toward the ideology of separatism that was gaining sway is a question that can never be answered. At the time of his death he was losing support among many young black activists who saw him as too accommodating and his tactic of nonviolence too timid.

What is clear is that, with King gone, the movement lost its most effective advocate at reaching across racial lines, using both the soaring oratory of the preacher and the intellect of a philosopher to drive home the point that eliminating oppression is everybody’s concern:

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” King wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham jail,” four months before the March on Washington.

Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the NAACP, calls King’s death “a greater loss than we realize.”

“We no longer had the guy who was speaking to white people and black people in the same language,” Bond says. “I can’t think of anybody who could do that in the way he did.”

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The Arab oil boycott and the rise of OPEC

The huge gains in civil rights and expansions of government programs to aid minorities and the poor took place during a time of almost unprecedented economic prosperity, much of it resting on a foundation of cheap oil from the Middle East. The gross domestic product per capita went from $15,644 in 1960 to $23,155 in 1973, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (using 2005 dollars). Unemployment fell from around 7% in the spring and summer of 1961 to 4% at the end of 1965 and stayed at or below that for the rest of the decade. Median household income rose an astonishing 70% from 1950 to 1972. Whites felt happy and economically safe and many were willing, albeit grudgingly, to support desegregation efforts and government programs, such as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, designed to lift black people. Even Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican, felt politically secure enough in his first term to back the strongest type of affirmative action measures – fixed numerical quotas.

This relatively idyllic racial environment exploded in October 1973 when Egyptian jets roared over the Sinai Peninsula to start the Yom Kippur War. Angered by U.S. support for Israel during the conflict, a group of Persian Gulf oil producers led by Saudi Arabia halted exports to the United States and cut overall production. Then the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries began collective action to control, and raise oil prices. In 1970, oil cost $1.80 a barrel. In 1979, after the fall of the Shah of Iran, it was $34 a barrel. Today it hovers around $100 a barrel.

Economic good times lurched to a halt. The gross national product plunged by 6% between 1973 and 1975. Unemployment doubled during that time. Inflation soared. Business reacted to the increased cost of energy by holding down wages and began shipping jobs overseas searching for cheaper labor. Median household income actually fell from $36,451 in 1973 to $34,021 in 1996.

“It was a hard time,” says Daniel Yergin, author of “The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World.” “A lot of people were losing jobs, or feared they were going to lose jobs. Businesses were not investing. It led to a kind of bitterness in American politics.”

White “tolerance” of civil rights, never strong to begin with, dried up. In 1978 the Passage of Proposition 13 in California heralded a revolt against taxes and government spending that persists until this day. “Preferences” for blacks and Hispanics came under attack in the courts and at the ballot boxes. In 1980 Ronald Reagan, running on cutting taxes and spending – including funding “welfare queens” – won in a landslide.

Some have argued that the “civil rights era” ended in Memphis when a sniper’s bullet cut down Martin Luther King. A strong case could be made that it died in the Vienna meeting rooms of OPEC, the palaces of Riyadh and the streets of Tehran.

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Milliken v. Bradley

In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a court-ordered school integration plan that involved busing black students from Detroit into 53 white suburban school districts. In rejecting the plan, the justices ruled that unless a suburban district has been involved in creating a segregated school district, it could not be subjected to court-mandated desegregation plans. In his dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall called the ruling a “giant step backwards.”

Indeed, Milliken effectively brought an abrupt end to school integration efforts across district lines. From then on, school integration only took place in cities that had annexed suburban areas, or naturally when African-Americans moved out to the suburbs.

“Once the courts made clear that you could not engage in inter-district busing, it left the story to become what it has become,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “As whites moved to the suburbs, you ended up with inner-city school systems that were 80 to 90% African-American. That was contrary to the Brown decision, which was to break the back of segregated schools and advance the integrating of our schools and educating our children together.”

Black students were stuck in a deteriorating school system funded by a shaky tax base that often failed to attract and retain the best teachers. The impact on black education has been devastating. Indeed, since Milliken virtually all school reform efforts aimed at poor African-American students – community control, vouchers, school uniforms, charter schools, No Child Left Behind – can be seen as little more than attempts to make the doctrine of “separate but equal” work this time.

The crack epidemic and the war on drugs

Arguments have raged over whether crack cocaine is a more virulent and more addictive drug than its powdered cousin. But it was addictive enough – and it was cheaper. As a result it swept through poor black communities during the 1980s like a typhoon, leaving devastation in its wake. The murder rate among young blacks in the inner cities quadrupled during a five-year period as gangs battled for control of the lucrative drug trade. School dropout rates soared. Infant mortality began to climb. In a 2005 paper, economists Steven Levitt and Kevin Murphy estimated that African-American’s postwar social and economic progress “was not only stopped cold, but was often knocked as much as 10 years backwards” by the epidemic.

It was not just the disease that ravaged inner-city communities, it was also the cure. Stiff drug laws and increased law enforcement resulted in an explosion of black men being thrown in prison. By 2008 as the epidemic had run its course, 1 in 15 black men over the age of 18 was behind bars. The wave of incarcerations furthered shattered black families as more black men were either removed from the community or rendered unemployable, and thus less worthy of marriage when they were paroled. As a result, where 20% of black children lived with their mother but not their dad in 1960, by 1990 more than 50% were in homes without a father.

“Black Americans were hurt more by crack cocaine than by any other single cause since Jim Crow,” Levitt and Murphy wrote.

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The O.J. trial

When a majority black jury acquitted O.J. Simpson of charges of murdering his ex-wife and an acquaintance, black people cheered and whites gasped at both the verdict and the celebration. Generally, a sensational celebrity trial would not be considered a defining moment in race relations. But the reactions to the Simpson verdict laid bare, perhaps for the first time, the extent of the “Rashomon” nature of America’s racial dynamic. Blacks and whites looked at the exact same phenomena and came to diametrically opposed conclusions.

Whites looked at the DNA evidence, the holes in Simpson’s alibis, the fact that a bloody glove left behind at the murder scene matched another glove found near Simpson’s home and concluded that he surely was guilty. But nine of the 12 jurors, either themselves or through a close friend or relative, had had a negative experience with law enforcement personnel and were susceptible to the defense argument that much of the incriminating evidence may have been planted.

That notion was helped when it was revealed that Mark Fuhrman, a Los Angeles police detective, had repeatedly used the n-word in a videotape after having denied he had ever uttered such a slur, and when asked about this seeming contradiction invoked his Fifth Amendment rights and refused to answer.

“When the jurors heard evidence of Fuhrman possibly fabricating evidence, these were things that, instead of it being difficult to believe, these people on this particular jury, said of course that’s possible,” says Richard Gabriel, a trial consultant who served on the Simpson defense team. That assertion also rang true enough to the huge number of black people who watched the trial, many of whom also had had run-ins with cops.

What made the Simpson trial so important when it comes to how blacks and whites view each other was sheer number of people who watched it unfold. The televised verdict drew more than 100 million viewers, more than 90% of the people who happened to be watching television at that time.

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The immigration wave

In 1965, as Congress was debating and passing major civil rights legislation, lawmakers decided to end what they saw as racial discrimination in the country’s immigration policy. That year they passed an immigration reform act that did away with numerical quotas – the set number of people that could enter the United States from particular countries that were heavily skewed toward European nations. Instead, the new law set up a system based on allowing people who have family already in the country to immigrate. No one thought the change would amount to much. “It does not affect the lives of millions,” President Lyndon Johnson said at the signing ceremony. “It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power.”

Five decades later the law, and subsequent measures in 1986 and 1990, has spawned the largest influx of immigrants since the Ellis Island wave at the beginning of the 20th century. The number of American residents born outside the country rose from 9.6 million in 1970 to more than 40 million in 2010. And the foreign-born had a much different hue. In 1960, 75% of them were white Europeans. By 2010, 81% came from Asia and Latin America, mainly Mexico. The huge wave of immigrants, coupled with higher birth rates among Hispanics has led to predictions that whites will be in the minority by midcentury.

For the most part, this immigration wave has added to blacks’ political power as Hispanics and Asians have, for example, backed the same candidate for president in recent elections. There have been tensions, particularly pitting blacks and Hispanics on one side and Asians on the other over affirmative action policies. There is a suspicion among some black people that the greater acceptance of Asians by white people – as evidence in the remarkably high intermarriage rates – gives some whites a “racial escape valve,” to say in essence, “How can I be racist? Look who I married.”

But the main tension comes from those whites who feel threatened by the explosive demographic shift and a fear that “their” country is becoming unrecognizable.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that supports limiting immigration, says those fears are exacerbated by the concept of “multiculturalism,” government classification of people by their race or ethnicity and the extension of some affirmative action programs to immigrants. Given those developments, Krikorian says that “increasing, through immigration, the percentage of so-called nonwhites in the population does create a very powerful incentive for a white identity or a white nationalism. If everyone has to fight to divide up the spoils, then you better get a team to belong to.”

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The election of President Barack Obama

There is, perhaps, no event that signaled the remarkable progress the country has made in race relations than the election – and the re-election – of its first African-American president.

There is no argument that the election of a black president spoke volumes about the progress blacks had made since the end of slavery and legal segregation. That Obama garnered a higher percentage of the white vote in 2008 than did Democrats John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale in their elections spoke volumes about how much racial attitudes in the country had changed. And the fact he was elected as the country was plunging into its worst economic slump since the Great Depression had its own significance.

“What is most important about [Obama’s election] was that for the first time in the nation’s history, to get us out of a jam, we turned to and trusted a black man,” wrote Robert O. Self, an associate history professor at Brown University.

The election result was seen as enormous racial boost for the country. A day after the polls closed, 70% of respondents in a Gallup poll said race relations would improve with Obama’s election. Two-thirds said that his election was the most or among the most significant events with regard to race in the last 100 years. Blacks reacted with a mixture of disbelief and pride.

“We just felt so much better about ourselves,” says Julian Bond.

Though Obama’s white support eroded during his first term, he was still able to make up for it with huge winning margins among black, Hispanic, Asian and young voters, signaling the new power of minorities and the generation shift in attitudes regarding race.

As with every leap forward in the racial arena, Obama’s election has not come without costs. While his policies have been credited with halting the economic crisis the country was suffering through when he entered office, he has been unable, in the face of stiff Republican resistance, to enact further measures to bolster a weak recovery. As a result, it has been black people, his most loyal supporters, who have suffered the most economically during his tenure.

Also, his election has unleashed a torrent of racially tinged invective toward him. Throughout the country’s history, presidents’ opponents have based much of their criticism on the chief executive’s personal characteristics and foibles. It should not be surprising that, in this case, one of the most frequent lines of personal attacks involves Obama’s race.

Finally, and perhaps most insidiously, Obama’s election spawned the view among some whites that no more needed to be done to advance the progress of African-Americans, and that since a black man occupied the Oval Office, anti-discrimination measures such as the Voting Rights Act are were no longer needed.

To some that may ring true. Others are more inclined to believe Jelani Cobb , director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, who wrote earlier this year that, “the only impediment to realizing the creed of ‘We Shall Overcome’ is the narcotic belief that we already have.”

CNN’s Amy Roberts and Caitlin Stark contributed research to this article.