Black America Long March for Equality

November 15, 1985

A document from the CQ Researcher archives:

Report Outline
Rights Revolution
Housing and Education
Economic Status
Special Focus

Rights Revolution

Bus Boycott Sparks Civil Rights Cause

Thirty Years Ago, on Dec. 1, 1955, a tired black seamstress refused to give her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and touched off a period of extraordinary change for black Americans. To protest Rosa Parks' arrest and the city's segregation ordinance, Montgomery's black community boycotted city buses for nearly a year. The non-violent boycott propelled its leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to national prominence and set the pattern for the civil rights demonstrations that would result in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Those two laws guaranteed blacks access to public accommodations, voting booths and jobs. Other federal laws followed, barring discrimination in housing and offering a whole range of federal programs to put blacks on an equal footing with whites. With these new rights and supports, blacks in large numbers took advantage of educational and job training opportunities and entered the mainstream of American economics and politics. The civil rights movement “is probably the greatest revolution that America has ever seen,” said Ken Johnson, acting president of the Southern Regional Council.1

The struggle was not without great cost. King was assassinated in April 1968, leaving the movement without a leader who could draw its many disparate elements together. Frustration and broken expectations left many inner cities in flames during the long hot summers of the late 1960s. And violent opposition to busing in several Northern cities began to pull apart white support for the black movement. Today blacks as a group still are not fully integrated into American life. Racial stereotypes persist. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan still exist. Civil rights organizers say efforts to keep blacks from moving into white neighborhoods remain common. Strong resistance has stymied school desegregation in many communities.

Black progress in the economic realm is even harder to assess. The collapse of barriers to black advancement and the active recruitment of blacks into businesses and colleges have spurred a growing black middle class. But unemployment, crime, infant mortality and other symptoms of poverty remain at high levels. Many sociologists worry that an intractable black underclass is forming.

And there is a widening debate over how much more the federal government should do to help blacks advance. On the one hand are those who say affirmative action programs are necessary to overcome years of discrimination against blacks even if they result in discrimination against whites. This group, which includes most of the longtime civil rights activists, also contends that federal aid programs need to be continued to help blacks break out of poverty. The other faction, which includes several conservative black economists, says the aid programs have only created dependency and that blacks must now rely on themselves and their own resources for advancement.

Gaining Access to Public Accommodations

In perhaps no other area has the success of the civil rights movement been more apparent than in the normal activities of everyday life. The sight of blacks and whites eating in the same restaurant or occupying adjacent seats in a movie theater is commonplace. Only a generation ago such scenes would not have happened in many places, especially in the South where racial segregation had been law since the late 19th century. “Essentially, blacks in those states lived in 1955 under a regime where they had very few rights that white people were bound to respect,” said William Taylor, a white lawyer and veteran of the civil rights movement who heads the Center for National Policy Review in Washington, D.C.2 “They could not use public accommodations that whites used, they couldn't go to restaurants, hotels, to use bathroom facilities.” While segregation laws were absent in other regions, whites generally treated blacks as inferior and private discrimination was not uncommon. Black entertainers, for example, were often refused rooms in the hotels in which they were performing.

Blacks who had thought that the Emancipation Proclamation, the Northern victory in the Civil War, and the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution would provide them with the full rights of American citizenship were to be sorely disappointed. After the Reconstruction period ended with the removal of Northern troops from the South in 1877, several Southern states enacted segregation statutes, known as “Jim Crow” laws after a derogatory epithet for blacks.

The Supreme Court upheld such laws in 1896. Homer Adolph Plessy challenged a Louisiana segregation law after he had been excluded from a railroad car reserved for whites because he was part black. Writing for the majority in Plessy v. Ferguson, Justice Henry B. Brown said Plessy was wrong to assume “that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority.” As long as blacks were provided with rail transportation, the court ruled, their physical separation from whites did not violate their rights to equal protection of the laws.

From then on “separate but equal” prevailed in public places throughout the South. “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs on water fountains, bathrooms and other public accommodations symbolized the second-class citizenship of blacks. Some Southern communities made an effort to provide “equal” facilities, by building identical waiting rooms in bus stations for whites and blacks, for example. But more often, the accommodations for blacks were inadequate or poorly maintained. And the ordinances reinforced the white notion that blacks were inferior. Blacks were required to stand on many city buses even if seats were available in the front, and in some places blacks paid in the front but then had to walk out and enter the bus through the back door.

Such was the situation in Montgomery in 1955, when Rosa Parks, a seamstress and member of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), took a seat toward the rear of a city bus. When the front section filled up, a white man demanded that Parks give him her seat. She refused and was arrested. Recognizing an opportunity to challenge the city's segregation law and to energize the black community around a cause, blacks formed the Montgomery Improvement Association, named Martin Luther King Jr., then a young minister, its leader, and staged a yearlong bus boycott that had the support of almost all of Montgomery's blacks. On Nov. 13, 1956, the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision holding that the city's bus segregation law was unconstitutional.

Black demands for equal treatment soon moved to other arenas. Beginning with a sit-in at a Woolworth's store in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960, white and black members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) defied verbal and physical harassment to desegregate lunch counters in the South. A biracial group attempting to desegregate bus terminals started out from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961. In a matter of days, these “Freedom Riders” were brutally beaten in Alabama and their bus firebombed.

Media coverage of the growing civil rights movement and the increasingly violent reactions to it fostered widespread public sympathy for the cause outside the South and created momentum for change. On July 2, 1964, President Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act, which President Kennedy had proposed before his assassination the previous year. In addition to barring racial discrimination in employment and federal assistance programs, the act prohibited discrimination in virtually all public accommodations. Taylor was part of the first integrated group to stay at a hotel in Jackson, Miss., after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. “Other whites who were staying at the hotel would look at us with clear dismay, with real emotional distress written all over their faces. This was something they hadn't seen before and which they had great difficulty accepting,” he recalled.

Despite the Civil Rights Act, attempts at racial exclusion still occur, and they are not confined to the Deep South. Within the past year, a restaurant owner in rural northern Virginia was convicted in federal court for trying to keep black patrons out, and a restaurant in Boston was closed for limiting the number of blacks it would allow on the premises. But these acts appear to be the exception to the rule. “The acceptance of blacks is common currency,” Taylor said. “The net result of the civil rights movement is that blacks have demanded and won respect from whites in ways that they never truly had in the past.”

Voting Rights, Expanding Political Power

Participation in the political process has been the other signal achievement of the civil rights movement. In 1985 the black mayors of Detroit and Los Angeles were elected overwhelmingly to their fourth terms in office. U.S. Rep. William H. Gray III, D-Pa., was elected chairman of the powerful House Budget Committee. In 1984 Jesse Jackson was treated as the first serious black contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, and white politicians aggressively courted black voters in many areas of the South.

Thirty years ago there were few black officeholders and less than 30 percent of the Southern black voting-age population was registered to vote. Although the 15th Amendment barred federal or state governments from denying persons the right to vote on the basis of race, white legislators in the South and in several locations in the North had devised obstacles that kept blacks from voting. These devices included poll taxes, property ownership, requirements of “good moral character” and educational achievement. In some places voting districts were drawn specifically to dilute the black vote.

One of the most effective barriers was the literacy test in which potential registrants were asked to read and interpret a section of the state constitution. Although man whites could not pass these tests either, they were applied selectively against blacks. Often, those who protested their disenfranchisement were subjected to violence or other forms of intimidation.

Meaningful voting rights was a key goal of the civil rights movement. The white and black students who registered black voters in Mississippi during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 had limited success but the publicity they received sparked a sympathetic reaction from many outside the South.3 The walls of legal voter discrimination began to crumble in 1964, when the 24th Amendment to the Constitution barred poll taxes as a prerequisite to voting in federal elections.

Selma, Ala., where only 335 of the 15,115 voting-age blacks were registered to vote, became the focal point of the efforts to secure greater voting rights for blacks. On March 7, 1965, King attempted to lead demonstrators on a march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery 50 miles away. They were stopped almost immediately by state troopers and local police who attacked them with night sticks, whips, police dogs and fire hoses. The nation was badly shaken by these televised scenes of violence against unarmed marchers. Four days later, with the death of James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister from Boston who had been badly beaten by whites in Selma, the shock turned to outrage and spurred President Johnson to send a voting rights bill to Congress.4

The Voting Rights Act, signed into law on Aug. 3, 1965, banned literacy tests and authorized the attorney general to supervise voter registration in jurisdictions that had used qualifying devices and where less than half of all the eligible voters were registered. Redistricting plans intended to dilute the black vote or otherwise prevent the election of black officials were also barred.5

The new law's impact was immediate: By the end of 1965, black registration in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina had increased by almost 40 percent. Today, due in part to massive voter registration efforts such as the one in 1984, black registration figures are comparable to those of whites in many states. For example, 86 percent of all eligible black voters in Mississippi were registered as of last November. Less than 7 percent of eligible blacks were registered just 20 years before.

The number of black elected officials has also jumped since the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In 1964 there were only 280 black elected officials in the entire United States; as of January 1985, there were 6,056. The mayors in four of the nation's six largest cities are black: Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, Harold Washington in Chicago, Coleman Young in Detroit and Wilson Goode in Philadelphia. Among the black mayors in the Deep South is Andrew Young of Atlanta, who was recently elected to his second term. In fact, 63 percent of all of the nation's black elected officials are in the South.

The increase in black voter registration has not only opened the doors for black office-holding; it has also forced most white Southern candidates to tone down their racial rhetoric and to pursue black votes. In 1962 Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace declared that he stood for “segregation now, and segregation forever”; in 1968 and 1972 he ran for president as the candidate of the white backlash. Seeking to return to the state house in 1982, he campaigned for the black vote, winning 90 percent of that vote against a conservative Republican.

Despite the dramatic increases in black political participation, some black activists say there is room for more progress. Blacks make up 12 percent of the American population but hold only 1.2 percent of all elected offices. There has never been an elected black governor, and there has been no black U.S. senator since Edward W. Brooke, R-Mass., was defeated for re-election in 1978.6 The 20-member black delegation in the U.S. House is ten times as large as it was in 1955 but comprises just 4.6 percent of the entire body.

Some analysts cite the narrow losses by Tom Bradley in his race for governor of California in 1982 and U.S. House candidate Robert Clark of Mississippi in 1982 and 1984, and the narrow win by Democratic mayoral candidate Harold Washington in the overwhelmingly Democratic city of Chicago in 1983 as evidence that many whites still refuse to vote for a black for public office. On the other hand, state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder was elected Nov. 5 as lieutenant governor of Virginia, becoming the first black elected to statewide executive office in the South since Reconstruction.

Go to top

Housing and Education

Persistence of Residential Segregation

The Civil Rights movement also sought equal opportunity for blacks in housing and education. But discrimination in these two areas has proved much more resistant to meaningful change. Evidence of segregation in all regions of the country, along with sporadic violent outbursts against integration in several communities, has often shattered Northern smugness about Southern “racism.”

Blacks' ability to fight housing discrimination has improved significantly since passage of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968. The last of the major civil rights laws enacted in that period, it banned racial discrimination in the sale and rental of almost all forms of housing.7 Martin Sloane, the executive director of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing (NCADH), said that, although overt discrimination had been eased, “underground” discrimination still exists.8 “It's rare that you'll find a [real estate] broker saying to a black person, ‘Get out of my office, I won't deal with you,’” he said. “Instead, they say, ‘Come in, sit down, have a cup of coffee, I have marvelous homes for you.’ But they are all in black areas.” This practice is known as “racial steering.” Sloane said that even the results of a 1979 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—which found housing discrimination in 72 percent of the rental situations and 48 percent of the sale situations it examined—were underestimates, since racial steering was regarded as positive treatment of blacks.

Overt acts of discrimination still occur. The first black family to move into a white neighborhood may quickly find itself the target of cross-burnings, broken windows, death threats or worse. Although low-income blacks moving into low-income white neighborhoods face such incidents more frequently, middle-class blacks are also victimized. On Aug. 8, 1979, Tom Porter, an executive with International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), moved his family into a $100,000 home in a middle-class section of Yonkers, N.Y. That night the house was firebombed and destroyed; family members had to fight through the smoke to escape.

The rarity of such violence makes the housing situation for blacks much more positive than it was 30 years ago. “No one really cares who lives next door to you these days, as long as that person is able to pay the rent and cut the grass,” said J.A. Parker, executive director of the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education in Washington, D.C. “The marketplace prevails, and there are precious few real estate dealers who are going to turn away a bird-in-the-hand, in the form of a real estate commission, to keep somebody out of his property.”

Other black leaders do not agree that American society has gone colorblind when it comes to housing. Dr. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), said that the Atlanta neighborhood in which he lives was mainly white when he first moved in. “White people almost totally evacuated this community over the last 10 to 12 years,” Lowery said. “The blacks who moved into this community are middle-class, they're educators, they're business people, they're professionals. But that didn't make any difference to the whites who were living here.” Lowery said that this “white flight” has had an ironic effect: “The people were so anxious to move that I got [the house] at a bargain. Blacks who have been patient and waited for white racist attitudes to make their fleeing urgent have reaped benefits from it, by getting better housing at reasonable rates.”

Taylor disagreed that white suburban migration is mainly racially motivated. “White flight is in most respects an overrated phenomenon,” he said. “The best evidence is that suburbanization of whites is a phenomenon that is rather independent of race. Housing [and] job opportunities have opened in the suburbs over the course of 30 years now, and people have been pursuing those opportunities.” But whether the reason is racial paranoia or simple economics, whites have been abandoning central cities over the last 30 years, in many cases leaving blacks as inner-city majorities.

Divisive Battles Over School Integration

On May 17, 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation in education was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. “We conclude that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

In coming to that conclusion, the court cited several sociological studies on the detrimental effects of enforced racial separation. “Racial segregation …tends to relegate appellants and their group to an inferior caste, lowers their level of aspiration, instills feelings of insecurity and inferiority, and retards educational development,” Robert Carter, assistant counsel for the plaintiffs, told the court.

In 1955, after further hearings, the Supreme Court issued its implementation order, known as Brown II, which required communities to act “with all deliberate speed” to desegregate their schools but prescribed no specific remedies. Just how difficult the task would be soon became evident. Southern governors and legislators staged a campaign of “massive resistance” to racial integration. Hundreds of segregated “academies” for white students opened across the South, and resources were reduced for school systems that had become almost all-black. In Prince Edward County, Va., white officials closed down the school system for five years rather than desegregate; white families founded the segregated Prince Edward Academy, while black children had to study at home or move in with relatives in other communities.

The federal government did not enforce the desegregation order until 1957, when President Eisenhower sent U.S. Army troops to protect black students who had been assigned to Little Rock (Ark.) High School over the objections of Gov. Orval Faubus and thousands of angry white citizens. President Kennedy later used federal troops to protect black students entering the University of Alabama and the University of Mississippi.

The Brown decision was targeted at state laws that required racial segregation in schools. Civil rights groups complained, however, that residential and school districting patterns in many cities in the North amounted to “de facto” segregation. Busing white students to schools in black neighborhoods and black students to schools in white neighborhoods became the most common means of trying to end both de jure and de facto school segregation.

In some cities busing was accomplished with relative success and without severe disruption. Busing advocates commonly use as an example the school district of Charlotte-Mecklenberg County, N.C., where a group of white parents were the losing plaintiffs in 1971 when the Supreme Court upheld the use of school busing to foster integration. When President Reagan, visiting Charlotte during his election campaign in 1984, declared that busing was a “social experiment that nobody wants,” the Charlotte Observer responded in an editorial titled, “You Were Wrong, Mr. President.” Charlotte's “proudest achievement is its fully integrated public school system,” the editorial said.

But other cities resisted busing. In some instances, white and black parents alike complained of having to send their children miles away to another neighborhood when there was a school within walking distance. Many white parents feared that their children would suffer scholastically from the lower achievement levels in inner-city schools and physically from the crime and unrest they perceived as rampant in low-income black areas. And in several cases, the school bus became the focus of white resentment of blacks. In 1972 empty school buses to be used in desegregation efforts were blown up in Pontiac, Mich. That same year, George Wallace, emphasizing his opposition to school busing, won the Democratic primaries in the supposedly “moderate” states of Michigan and Maryland.9

The reaction to busing in Boston put the lie to the belief that antagonism between the races was a Southern problem. In 1974 Federal Court Judge Arthur Garrity found that the white-dominated School Committee had maintained districts that perpetuated racial segregation. He ordered a busing plan to achieve racial balance. But many of Boston's white public school students lived in enclaves where blue-collar ethnics not only held strong racial biases, but also cherished the institution of the neighborhood school, according to author J. Anthony Lukas. The plan also paired black districts with low-income Irish-American communities like South Boston and Charlestown that were most resistant to the idea of busing. The result was violence. White adults and children threw rocks and bottles at school buses, some chanting “Nigger go home!”

In his critically acclaimed book Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas wrote that the issue was almost as much about socio-economic class as it was about race. When not venting their rage against blacks, white activists in Boston assailed busing supporters like Garrity and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who lived outside the city and were thus spared the effects of busing. Blacks are also critical of the unwillingness of affluent whites to support metropolitan integration efforts which, with the movement of whites from cities to suburbs, has resulted in the gradual resegregation of schools in many inner cities. “The well-to-do have to a large degree been able to avoid it, whether it has been housing or education or a number of other areas of our society that should be more integrated,” Johnson of the Southern Regional Council said.

With the effectiveness of school busing open to serious debate, and with President Reagan actively opposing busing from the White House, some educators are seeking alternatives for improving educational opportunities for blacks. “The romantic notion that integration is the means to as well as the greatly sought end to the long struggle with racism continues to find favor with middle-class liberals of both races,” wrote Derrick Bell, dean of the University of Oregon Law School, in The Journal of Negro Education. “Happily, though, there are black educators who, though not invited to participate in school desegregation strategizing, have made impressive strides in evolving techniques to increase, sometimes dramatically, the level of learning in the black schools.”10

Lowery said the SCLC helped develop a plan for Atlanta that relied on “magnet schools” and increased educational funding rather than massive busing.11 However, Lowery added, “In some places, there is no choice other than massive busing because [officials] simply refuse to let equity reign in the educational system, allocation of resources, assignment of teachers and so on.” What people like Bell are talking about, Taylor said, “is a species of ‘separate but equal,’ and that simply won't work either for legal or educational reasons.”

Go to top

Economic Status

Continued Gap Between Blacks, Whites

The Economic well-being of blacks in America is still a very mixed picture. Although millions of blacks have benefited from the collapse of discriminatory barriers to employment and job advancement, others remain mired in poverty with little hope of immediate escape.

The civil rights movement created “an expanding middle class—blacks who were trained, who were skilled, who were able …white collar workers, government workers, those who have moved up in the private sector, professionals,” Lowery said. Aided by the Supreme Court's desegregation rulings, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and active recruitment policies that often included affirmative action plans, blacks enrolled in far greater numbers in universities and professional schools. As a result many blacks hold jobs in well-paying sectors of the economy from which they had been previously excluded. According to Thomas Sowell, a conservative economist whose writings often put him at loggerheads with the traditional black leadership, “Today, where husbands and wives are both college-educated, and both working, black families of this description earn slightly more than white families of this description—nation-wide and without regard to age.”12

But Census Bureau statistics indicate that, overall, even these educated blacks have not reached parity with educated whites. In 1982, the median income for white families headed by persons with four years or more of college education was $38,980; for black families, the median income was $30,412. Nearly half of such white families had incomes of $40,000 or better; only a quarter of all black families headed by a college graduate were as affluent.13

By any number of measurements, blacks have gained economically. But in almost none have blacks even approached equity with whites. The percentage of blacks aged 25 or older who were not high school graduates declined from 92.7 percent in 1940 to 43.2 percent in 1983, but in the same period, the percentage of whites of that description fell from 75.5 percent to 27.9 percent. The percentage of all black children under the age of 18 who were living in poverty declined from 66.7 percent in 1959 to 46.5 percent in 1984. But only 16.5 percent of all white children under 18 lived in poverty in 1984.

The list goes on. The median income for blacks is only 55.7 percent of that for whites and has actually fallen from 61.5 percent in 1975. Unemployment among black adults has consistently been more than twice that of whites. Black teenage unemployment hangs stubbornly near 50 percent. Family income is under $10,000 in half the black households headed by persons with less than an eighth-grade education, compared with 35 percent of similar white households. Blacks are far more likely than whites to suffer serious health problems, receive public assistance, be crime victims, be convicted of committing crimes, rent rather than own their residence, lack complete plumbing facilities, and live without conveniences like telephones, air conditioning and cars.

Many sociologists see trends that threaten to make the relative position of blacks in American society worse. Nearly 60 percent of all black children born in 1983 were born to unmarried mothers. In 1977–1982, 93.4 percent of first births to black women aged 15–17 were out of wedlock, compared with 54.9 percent 30 years earlier.

The high birthrate for unmarried black women, the divorce rate that plagues the entire nation and the additional numbers of black men who, for various reasons, abandoned their families have increased the number of black households headed by women. “While families headed by women have often proved just as effective as two-parent families in raising children, the most critical danger facing female-headed households is poverty,” wrote Eleanor Holmes Norton, former chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “Seventy percent of black children under the age of 18 who live in female-headed families are being brought up in poverty.”14 Many civil rights leaders have voiced concern over what they call a developing black “underclass,” made up of youths born and raised in poverty, lacking parental guidance or positive role models, and prone to drop out of school, be unemployed and get involved in drug abuse or crime.

No Consensus on Solution to Inequality

Some blacks blame the persistent inequities in American economic life on continued racism and discrimination. “It is

undeniable that some progress toward eliminating discriminatory barriers against blacks was achieved in the last half of the 1950s and the decade of the 1960s, but these actions failed largely because racial discrimination is deeply rooted in the structure of American institutions….,” Alphonso Pinkney wrote in The Myth of Black Progress (1984). “Consequently, the longstanding problems of poverty, unemployment, job discrimination, inadequate housing, and barriers to education continue to reinforce the subordinate

position of Afro-Americans. Deeply ingrained white racism serves to justify the oppression of blacks.”15

In the 1960s, when the disaffection of poor blacks in the ghettoes of Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark, Washington, D.C., and other cities exploded into the worst race-related riots in American history, black activists demanded “reparations” from white America for years of oppression and discrimination. At the same time President Johnson pushed his “Great Society” and War on Poverty programs as the means to repair the damage done to black opportunity. Under Johnson and then President Nixon, Congress expanded public assistance, public-service jobs and job training programs; funded construction of subsidized housing projects, Food Stamps and school lunch programs; approved new education aid for disadvantaged children and low-income college students; set up the Head Start program for pre-schoolers; and provided Medicaid for the poor.

Most civil rights leaders agree that these federal assistance programs eased the worst effects of poverty and opened some doors to black Americans. “Manpower training programs and placement that was targeted had effects,” Lowery said. “I don't think they've been perfect, but a number of people did experience upward mobility, gained some marketable skills, feel better about themselves as a result of a number of anti-poverty programs.”

John Jacob, president of the National Urban League, concurred. The Great Society “made a major contribution to raising the standards of living for black people,” he said. “It created a middle class, it put more people in college than we have ever seen before, it almost doubled the enrollment of black kids going to college.”

But political and economic conservatives, noting the persistence of poverty and the growth in crime, drug abuse and other negative behavioral patterns among segments of the black community, say the money was wasted. They say that the money should have been left in the private economy where it would have created greater investment and job opportunity that would have had a more beneficial long-term impact on the poor.

Critics say that expansion of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) has increased dependency on welfare, while setting welfare payments near or equal to the salaries in entry-level jobs has decreased incentives to work.16 Restricting welfare payments mainly to families where the husband/father was absent is blamed for the growing numbers of black female-headed households. “There is no question that many well-intentioned Great Society-type programs contributed to family breakups, welfare dependency and a large increase in births out of wedlock,” President Reagan said in a radio speech in December 1983.

Most black conservatives strongly support Reagan's efforts to restrict eligibility for welfare-state programs and provide incentives for private sector alternatives to federal aid programs. They say that the civil rights movement broke down the barriers of discrimination and that blacks now have the same opportunities for advancement as any other poor ethnic group has had throughout American history. What is lacking, these conservatives say, is the moral, political and entrepreneurial leadership to guide poor blacks into the economic mainstream.

“The bottom stratum of the black community has compelling problems which can no longer be blamed solely on white racism, and which force us to confront fundamental failures in black society,” Glenn C. Loury, professor of public policy at Harvard University, wrote in The New Republic. “The social disorganization among poor blacks, the lagging academic performance of black students, the disturbingly high rate of black-on-black crime, and the alarming increase in early unwed pregnancies among blacks now loom as the primary obstacles to progress.”17 J. A. Parker of the Lincoln Institute, commenting on the economic problems of unmarried mothers, said, “Teenage pregnancy is not the fault of anybody's economic condition. That's a problem of morality.”

Leaders of the mainline civil rights organizations deny there is a lack of moral leadership in the black community. “My whole speech at our last convention …was around ‘liberating lifestyles,’ that is, developing within the kind of commitment and dedication and discipline that meets the assault from without with our own resources,” Lowery said. Economic self-help has been central to the message of a diverse range of black leaders, including King; Jesse Jackson, director of People United to Serve Humanity (PUSH) and a 1984 presidential contender; 1960s radicals like Stokely Carmichael and Black Panther leader Huey Newton, whose Black Power movement preached revolution against white society; and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan whose fiery black nationalist rhetoric has attracted a following but disturbed many mainstream blacks as well as whites.

Lowery maintained, however, that black Americans just do not have the resources to overcome their economic problems on their own. Those who argue for pure self-help, he said, “tend to say that black people isolated from the system can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, when they don't have boots, and those who have boots, there ain't no straps on them. We cannot be saved by others, but neither can we save ourselves, separated, isolated from the realities of life in which we live, the system in which we live.”

Affirmative Action Programs Challenged

The question whether blacks require a helping hand in order to share fully in American affluence is central to the debate over “affirmative action” programs. The term was developed by President Johnson, whose Executive Order 11246, issued Sept. 24, 1965, required federal contractors to take affirmative steps to remedy past employment discrimination. Labor Department regulations implementing the order require all government contractors to set numerical goals for recruiting, hiring, training and promoting minorities and women and timetables for reaching these goals, which opponents describe as “quotas.”18 Pressure from individual and organized blacks resulted in voluntary or court-ordered institution of affirmative action plans in government agencies, universities and corporations.

The main complaint against affirmative action is that it results in “reverse discrimination” against whites. This was the claim made by Allen Bakke, who had been turned down for admission to the University of California at Davis medical school. The school had set aside 16 positions for black students, some of whom had scored lower than Bakke on admissions tests. In 1978 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state universities cannot set quotas for minority-group members but that admissions officers could consider race as one of many factors in determining who to accept. In 1979 the court approved a private employer's voluntary affirmative action plan, and in 1980 it upheld Congress' authority to allocate a portion of federally funded local public works projects to minority contractors.19

In 1984 the court ruled that lower courts could not overturn “last hired, first fired” seniority rules to protect recently hired minorities from layoffs.20 The Reagan administration interpreted that ruling to mean that federal courts could not impose any sort of racial quotas except those tailored to benefit individual victims of discrimination and urged 51 cities, counties and states to overturn their affirmative action programs. Most of the jurisdictions have said they will retain their plans.21

Opponents of affirmative action insist they are all for increasing the employment of black workers and the enrollment of black students, but they say quotas undermine efforts to achieve a colorblind American society. “Instead of equality of group results, people like myself have called for affirmative action to seek out, train (by remedial measures if necessary) and employ persons overlooked or deliberately deprived because of color or sex,” said Morris Abram, a Reagan appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “But we have advocated affirmative action in the context of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids racial preferences and quotas.”22

The advocates of black self-help also say that affirmative action hurts black self-esteem and creates negative perceptions among whites about the abilities of all blacks. “It has become quite clear,” Loury wrote, “that affirmative action creates uncertain perceptions about the qualifications of those minorities who benefit from it. In an employment situation, for example, if it is known that different selection criteria are used for different races, and that the quality of performance on the job depends on how one did on the criteria of selection, then in the absence of other information, it is rational to expect lower performance from persons of the race that was preferentially favored in selection. …The broad use of race preference to treat all instances of under-representation also introduces uncertainty among the beneficiaries themselves. It undermines the ability of people confidently to assert, if only to themselves, that they are as good as their achievements would seem to suggest. It therefore undermines the extent to which the personal success of any one black can become the basis of guiding the behavior of other blacks.”23

Affirmative action supporters say that the choice of under-qualified blacks to fulfill hiring goals is the exception, not the

rule. Whites might be right when they say black employees would not be in their positions if it were not for affirmative action, Lowery said, but they are wrong about the reasons. “The reason [blacks] wouldn't be there is because they wouldn't have had the opportunity because of racial discrimination,” he said. “If all things were equal and they had equal opportunity, many of them would be there, because they are able.”

While conservatives credit the collapse of discriminatory laws for sufficiently opening the doors to black advancement, Lowery, like most civil rights leaders, credits affirmative action. “We think that the expanding black middle class is the direct result of intentionality on the part of both the public and private sectors,” he said. “A system that intentionally excluded blacks and then refuses to be intentional about including them is a hypocritical system.”

Change of Direction in Reagan's Tenure

Although there were disagreements over levels of program funding and commitment to busing, civil rights leaders found the administrations from Johnson to Carter generally sympathetic to their goals. The arrival of the Reagan administration in 1981 marked a sharp change in presidential support for civil rights issues. Reagan's insistence on cutting federal aid programs that benefit poor blacks was not the only action that upset civil rights leaders. In 1982 the Supreme Court blocked an administration attempt to reverse an Internal Revenue Service rule that bars tax exemptions to private schools which discriminate on the basis of race. However, the administration revived the controversy last month by returning tax-exempt status to the Prince Edward Academy in Virginia, a symbol of “massive resistance” to school integration. The school had advertised an anti-discrimination policy, but had yet to recruit or receive an application from a black student when the exemption was granted. “The presence of black students would be persuasive, but so would signs of a serious effort to recruit black students,” Washington Post columnist William Raspberry wrote. “But for the counterrevolutionaries [of the Reagan administration], who are more comfortable with racism than race-specific remedies, the plain statement of open admissions is enough.”24

Reagan also angered black leaders in 1983 by first trying to fire three liberal members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, then agreeing to a compromise that left the commission with six Reagan supporters and two opponents. The commission, which since its formation in 1957 had almost always supported the civil rights community's positions, did a turnaround on affirmative action and busing, among other issues. Clarence Pendleton, commission chairman and a black Republican, has so vociferously opposed the agenda of traditional black leaders—accusing them at one point of leading blacks into a political Jonestown—that they have broken off contact with the commission.

This year the Reagan administration has filed briefs in three cases before the Supreme Court supporting challenges to the constitutionality of affirmative action programs.25 Attorney General Edwin Meese III is also working on a new executive order that would no longer require federal contractors to set numerical hiring goals for women and minorities and would prohibit the federal government from enforcing voluntary goals. Several other Cabinet officers, including Labor Secretary William E. Brock III, vigorously opposed the revision, leaving it up to Reagan to make the politically volatile decision.

Assistant Attorney General William Bradford Reynolds, a point man in establishing the administration's conservative agenda,26 recently attacked “set-asides” that provide to minority contractors a minimum percentage of the funding for federal projects. “We are all for increasing minority businesses, but not by setting aside special enclaves for them,” Reynolds told the National Construction Industry Council Sept. 18.

Black conservatives claim that Reagan's calls to self-help and entrepreneurialism are received more favorably in the black community than is often portrayed. A recent New York Times-CBS News poll showed that 28 percent of the blacks questioned said they approved of Reagan's handling of the presidency—the highest black approval rating yet for Reagan, up from 10 percent in 1982. Conservative economists like Sowell and Loury not only have the president's ear, but are frequently published in the nation's popular press. Some black politicians are also finding their philosophic home with the Republicans. The switch of popular Wayne County (Mich.) Executive William Lucas, a potential gubernatorial candidate in Michigan, from the Democratic to the Republican Party is an example.

A recent poll indicates that the black leadership may be far more liberal than the black citizenry. In the survey, conducted by the Center for Media and Public Affairs for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), 105 executives of leading black organizations were asked the same questions as a random sample of black individuals. Of the black leaders, 77 percent favored preferential treatment to make up for past discrimination; 77 percent of the sample group opposed racial preference. The poll showed similar conflicts over busing, prayer in public schools, abortion and the death penalty.27

However, a national poll taken during the election campaign last year by the Joint Center for Political Studies produced sharply different results. Only 27 percent of the blacks it surveyed opposed preferential hiring policies. While 66 percent of those questioned in the AEI poll thought they had made “progress,” only 37 percent of the joint center's respondents held that opinion.

Hardly anyone would deny that blacks as a group have made significant progress in American society; nor would many deny that blacks continue to suffer from a disproportionate share of economic and political inequity. In December 1984 sociologist Kenneth B. Clark recalled a conversation he had with Thurgood Marshall shortly after the Supreme Court overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954. Marshall, who was a counsel for the plaintiffs in the Brown case and is the first black Supreme Court justice, commented to Clark: “After we get the law clear, the hard job begins.”28 Thirty years after Montgomery, much of the hard work remains to be done.

Go to top



Bartley, Numan V., The Rise of Massive Resistance, Louisiana State University Press, 1969.

Blumberg, Rhoda Lois, Civil Rights: The 1960s Freedom Struggle, Twayne Publishers, 1984.

Lukas, J. Anthony, Common Ground, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Pinkney, Alphonso, The Myth of Black Progress, Cambridge, 1984.

Sowell, Thomas, Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, Wm. Morrow & Co., 1984.


Abram, Morris B., “What Constitutes a Civil Right?” The New York Time Magazine, June 10, 1984.

Bell, David A., “Out of Commission,” The New Republic, April 1, 1985, “Civil Rights Since Brown: 1954–1984,” The Center Magazine, September/October 1984.

Lichter, Linda S., “Who Speaks for Black America?” Public Opinion, August/September 1985.

Loury, Glenn C., “Beyond Civil Rights,” The New Republic, Oct. 7, 1985.

Williams, Eddie N., and Milton D. Morris, “Black Politics in the Year 2000,” Ebony, August 1985.

Witherspoon, Roger, and S. Lee Hilliard, “No Trespassing!” Black Enterprise, May 1985.

Reports and Studies

Editorial Research Reports: “Social Welfare Under Reagan,” 1984 Vol. I, p. 189; “Black Political Power,” 1983 Vol. II, p. 589; “Affirmative Action Reconsidered,” 1981 Vol. II, p. 553.

Sloane, Glenda G., “A Decent Home: A Report on the Continuing Failure of the Federal Government to Provide Equal Housing Opportunity,” Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, April 1983.

Go to top


[1] The Southern Regional Council, founded in 1918 to promote improved race relations, is one of the nation's oldest interracial organizations. It was known until 1944 as the Committee on Interracial Cooperation. Johnson and others quoted in this report were interviewed by the author unless otherwise indicated.

[2] The center is a public interest group that monitors federal agencies and the judiciary for compliance with civil rights laws.

[3] Much of the attention to the Freedom Summer campaign was drawn by the murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Miss. Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, both white, and James Chaney, a black, were beaten, shot to death and buried in shallow graves on June 21, 1964.

[4] Johnson also ordered the Alabama National Guard into federal service to protect the demonstrators who made their march on March 21–25 without further violence.

[5] Under the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Justice Department may send in federal registrars and must approve redistricting plans and other changes in voting law in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and parts of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire. New York and North Carolina. Although the law was originally drafted to aid only blacks, it has been amended to bring Hispanics. Asian-Americans, American Indians, and native Alaskans under its protection.

[6] P. B. S. Pinchback, a black Republican who served as president pro tem of the Louisiana Senate during Reconstruction, succeeded to the governorship in December 1872 when Gov. H.C. Warmoth was impeached. Pinchback relinquished the office to an elected white man one month later, and there has not been a black governor since.

[7] The rental of apartments in private, owner-occupied homes was exempted from the anti-discrimination provisions of the Fair Housing Act.

[8] NCADH, located in Washington, D.C., and the 75 private local fair housing groups around the country with which it is affiliated are among those who provide advice on individual rights and legal recourse, and conduct “tests” to determine the extent of housing discrimination. In the most common testing procedure, a black couple and a white couple of equal financial means separately approach a realtor or landlord, requesting to buy or rent a property. If the white couple is offered an option on the property after the black couple has been put off or told that the property is unavailable, it is described as an act of discrimination.

[9] Wallace was shot and paralyzed from the waist down while campaigning in Maryland on May 15, 1972, and was forced to quit the race. His white assailant, Arthur Bremer, had stalked several politicians and had no apparent political motive.

[10] Derrick Bell, “Putting Educators Back Into Desegregation,” The Journal of Negro Education, summer 1983.

[11] Under the “magnet school” concept, certain schools with racial imbalances are provided curricula intended to draw students from the underrepresented racial group.

[12] Thomas Sowell, Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality?, Morrow, 1984.

[13] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports, Series P-60, No. 142.

[14] Eleanor Holmes Norton, “Restoring the Traditional Black Family,” The New York Times Magazine, June 2, 1985.

[15] Alphonso Pinkney, The Myth of Black Progress, Cambridge, 1984, Pinkney is a professor of sociology at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

[16] See, for example, Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980, Basic Books, 1984.

[17] Glenn C. Loury, “A New American Dilemma,” The New Republic, Dec. 31, 1984, pp. 14–18.

[18] The order applies to 15,420 corporations employing 23 million workers.

[19] University of California Regents v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265 (1978); United Steelworkers of America v., Weber, Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. v. Weber, United States v. Weber. 443 U.S. 193 (1979); and Fullilove v. Klutznick, 448 U.S. 448 (1980).

[20] Firefighters Local Union #1784 v. Stotts (1984).

[21] For background, see Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, Oct. 19, 1985, pp. 2104.

[22] Morris Abram, “What is a Civil Right?,” The New York Times Magazine, June 10, 1984.

[23] Loury, op. cit., pp. 22–25.

[24] William Raspberry, “The Racism Doesn't Seem to Matter,” The Washington Post, Oct. 11, 1985, p. A27. The administration also opposes on technical grounds legislation that would overturn a 1984 Supreme Court decision that narrowed the enforcement powers of four civil rights acts, including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that barred discrimination in employment on the basis of race. For background, see Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, July 20, 1985, p. 1441.

[25] The cases are Wygrant v. Jackson Board of Education, argued Nov. 6, and Local 93 v. City of Cleveland, and Local 28 of the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association v. EEOC, to be argued later this term.

[26] Reynolds' nomination to be associate attorney general was withdrawn last July after the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected it. Opponents said Reynolds failed to enforce civil rights laws and repeatedly misled the committee about his actions at Justice.

[27] See Linda Lichter, “Who Speaks for Black America?” Public Opinion, August/September 1985, p. 41.

[28] Walter Goodman, “Dr. Kenneth Clark: Bewilderment Replaces Wishful Thinking on Race,” The New York Times, Dec. 27, 1984.

Go to top

Special Focus

According to the 1980 census, fewer blacks than whites own their own homes, and their homes are worth less. More blacks than whites live without what most Americans consider standard amenities. Here are some examples:

  Whites Blacks
Owner-occupied units 67.8% 44.4%
Median value of those units $48,600 $27,200
Incomplete plumbing facilities 1.7% 5.5%
No telephone 5.5% 16.1%
No air conditioning 41.9% 57.3%
No vehicle 10.2% 32.6%

Occupations Black % of Total
Total employment 9.6%
Construction 6.6
Manufacturing 9.9
Agriculture 5.9
Transportation, communications 12.4
Wholesale, retail trade 7.1
Finance, insurance, real estate 7.4
Private household service 28.5
Professional and related services 11.3
Public administration 13.9
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Go to top

Document APA Citation
Black America long march for equality. (1985). Editorial research reports 1985 (Vol. II). Washington, DC: CQ Press. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre1985111500
Document URL:
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
African Americans and the Civil Rights Movement
Nov. 15, 1985  Black America Long March for Equality
Aug. 12, 1983  Black Political Power
Jan. 18, 1980  Black Leadership Question
Aug. 15, 1973  Black Americans, 1963–1973
Nov. 26, 1969  Racial Discrimination in Craft Unions
Sep. 11, 1968  Black Pride
Feb. 21, 1968  Negro Power Struggle
Mar. 08, 1967  Negroes in the Economy
Jan. 19, 1966  Changing Southern Politics
Oct. 27, 1965  Negroes in the North
Jul. 21, 1965  Negro Revolution: Next Steps
Oct. 14, 1964  Negro Voting
Sep. 21, 1964  Negroes and the Police
Jul. 03, 1963  Right of Access to Public Accommodations
Jan. 23, 1963  Negro Jobs and Education
Mar. 25, 1960  Violence and Non-Violence in Race Relations
Aug. 05, 1959  Negro Employment
Apr. 18, 1956  Racial Issues in National Politics
Apr. 18, 1951  Progress in Race Relations
Dec. 17, 1948  Discrimination in Employment
Jan. 10, 1947  Federal Protection of Civil Liberties
Aug. 25, 1944  The Negro Vote
Jul. 01, 1942  Racial Discrimination and the War Effort
Mar. 25, 1939  Civil and Social Rights of the Negro
Jul. 22, 1927  Disenfranchisement of the Negro in the South
Affirmative Action
Civil Rights and Civil Liberty Issues
Civil Rights: African Americans
Domestic Issues
Fair Housing and Housing for Special Groups
Segregation and Desegregation
No comments on this report yet.
Comment on this Report