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

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.

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

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.

Would the government have spied on MLK Jr. today?

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.

The only class MLK ever taught

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 be