A simple yardstick would suggest that the civil rights changes since the march have exceeded what could have been imagined. In 1963, very few Blacks were registered to vote; there were no Black members of Congress from the South and few local elected officials.
Yet, today, both Lewis and one of Dr. King’s lieutenants, Andrew Young, have served as members of Congress representing Atlanta, and there are Black members of Congress from every Southern state.
In 1963, mostly limited to historically Black colleges and universities, only about 4 percent of the Black population had college degrees; today about 21 percent of African Americans have a college degree and attend every flagship public university in the South. But, the March for Jobs and Freedom was launched when the Black unemployment rate stood at 10.9 percent, today it stands at 12.6 percent.
The march did usher in many economic changes. The Civil Rights Act that passed the following year in 1964 made employment discrimination illegal, ending practices of major newspapers, like The Washington Post, posting help wanted ads for “nurse (practical) White, for small nursing home.” This was followed by President Lyndon Johnson issuing Executive Order 11246, requiring firms contracting with the federal government to take affirmative actions to ensure compliance with the Civil Rights Act in their hiring. And, the call to raise the minimum wage was answered with an eventual boost to $1.60 an hour in 1968—the equivalence of $10.70 today, and the minimum wage’s highest value. The minimum wage coverage was extended to state and local government workers, boosting the earnings of Black workers who gained entry to low-wage, public-sector employment.
The result was that the median earnings of Black men rose from below poverty for a family of three at $16,051 in 1963 to a peak of $23,135 in 1973, way above the poverty level. And, the Black unemployment rate fell to 6.4 percent in 1969. So, not surprisingly, the poverty rate for Black children fell from 65.6 percent in 1965 to 39.6 percent in 1969.
In 2010, 39 percent of Black children lived in poverty; the median income of Black men stood at $23,475 in 2011; and today the unemployment rate for Black men is at 12.6 percent.
Today, the challenge remains for civil rights to fight against the mass incarceration of Black men, protect the Voting Rights Act from activist Supreme Court judges on the right and prevent vigilante acts coded into “Stand Your Ground” laws that killed Trayvon Martin.
So, let us hope that this current generation, armed with social media, can outperform the generation of typewriters and index cards in putting hundreds of thousands into a march to redeem the dream in Dr. King’s speech to end racial injustice.
Thanks to the successes of the 1963 march, today’s young people will not be asked to march in the middle of the week as was the case in 1963. Afraid of a large gathering of “protesters,” the march organizers were forced to hold the march on a Wednesday to keep the crowd down and to agree that the marchers would all leave Washington by sundown. So, holding the march on a Saturday, and with the freedom to stretch the message longer than “sun up to sundown,” this generation has overcome those barriers of the past.