Fifty years ago this week, Medgar Evers, the NAACP regional secretary in Mississippi, was murdered by a member of the White Citizens’ Council. Evers’ death received national attention, serving only to strengthen the movement for civil rights.
Two years later, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a historic commencement address at Howard University, laying out progress made and challenges unmet. Johnson praised the “indomitable determination” of African Americans demanding their freedom. He hailed the Supreme Court for outlawing segregation, as well as Congress for passing the first civil rights legislation in 100 years.
The barriers to freedom are tumbling down, but “freedom is not enough,” he told the graduates. “You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying, ‘Now you are free to go where you want.’ . . . You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and bring him to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others.’”
“It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity,” the president said. “All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.” This, Johnson concluded, was “the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just legal equity but human ability; not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
Johnson understood that ability can be “stretched or stunted” by the accident of birth — the family you are born into, the neighborhood you live in, the school you attend, the poverty or luxury of your surroundings. He noted the progress that had been made in the building of an African-American middle class. But for “the great majority of Negro Americans,” he said, “there is a much grimmer story. They still . . . are another nation.”
Johnson listed some of the “facts of this American failure.” What is stunning is how little progress has been made since.
Negro unemployment was twice as high as that of whites in 1965. It is twice as high as whites today.
Unemployment for African-American teenage boys had grown to 23 percent in 1965. Unemployment for black teenagers of both sexes is 42.6 percent today.
The median income of African-American families had dropped to 53 percent that of whites in 1965. It was 63 percent in 2011.
Johnson argued that while the causes of this disparity are complex, “we have to act.” He pushed for a war on poverty, for jobs, “decent homes in decent surroundings” and “an equal chance to learn.” Care for the sick, welfare and social programs “designed to hold families together are part of the answer.”
Sadly, Johnson’s war on poverty was lost in the forests of Vietnam. Tired of war, cynical about lies, weary of upheaval, Americans were said to suffer “compassion fatigue.”
No president has sounded the call since. The barriers Johnson vowed to shatter have remained. And even as African Americans discovered the ladders to the middle class were disappearing, middle-class Americans of all races found themselves starting to lose their own footing.
Five decades later, legal segregation is behind us. Medgar Evers would be pleased to see African Americans admitted to the University of Mississippi. African Americans voted in higher percentages than whites in 2012 for the first time ever. But the work of what Johnson called “the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights” — equal economic opportunity — remains to be done.