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August 29, 2013
Column #1,670
How Much of the Dream Is Achieved?
By Mike McManus

WASHINGTON – Rep. John Lewis, the only man still living who spoke at the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago, told the anniversary crowd on August 28: “I came to Washington when Obama was born. Black and white people could not sit on the same seat of a bus. We could not register to vote because of the color of our skin.

“Martin Luther King told us to wear peace, to wear love, to have the power of forgiveness, so the country could be reconciled. Today we can ride where we want. Those signs “White” and “Colored” are gone and you won’t see them anymore except in museums.”

President Carter told the crowd that when he returned to Georgia after World War II, he joined the Board of Education. “I found there was one school for white children but 26 for African Americans. They were meeting in churches and living rooms because there were no school buses for them. So we integrated the schools.”

The unsung hero of those days was Lyndon Johnson, who used his encyclopedic knowledge of the Senate to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Medicare. As a young TIME correspondent, I was thrilled to report on these great events.

The result is astonishing. Some 10,000 blacks have been elected to office – including 44 Members of Congress, up from five. And what was unthinkable -a black man was elected President twice.

In 1967 29% of blacks dropped out of high school but only 7% today, only slightly more than the 5% of white kids who do so. Black median income in 1960 was only $9,000, half that of whites. Today, black income is $21,000, not much less than white’s $27,000 income.

In New York, a remarkable 204,000 blacks own their own business. Mississippi is one of the poorest states, yet 57% of blacks are homeowners. (Nationally, 40% of blacks own their homes vs. 70% of whites.)

However, African-American unemployment rate has been twice that of whites for decades.

The Voting Rights Act gave blacks an extraordinary achievement. It required nine states in the deep South to get Justice Department approval for any changes in voting regulations, since they had been used to block blacks from voting. As the Supreme Court noted in striking down part of the law, in 1965 only 19.4% of blacks were registered to vote in Alabama and 6.4% in Mississippi.

However, by 2004, 76% of African-Americans were registered in Mississippi compared to only 72% of whites. There were more blacks registered in Georgia than whites. By 2009, more blacks were registered than whites in five of six states.

Therefore, the Court ruled the preclearance requirements of the law were no longer needed, after nearly 50 years. They did abridge state sovereignty.

However, Texas and other states started changing voter ID requirements – changes so serious that the U.S. Attorney General sued Texas on grounds the ID measure would deny or abridge “the right to vote” due to race.

The Court had suggested for years that a new law was needed based on the new reality, but none has been proposed by the Obama Administration.

Whites have no idea of the discrimination that remains. A Pew Poll reports that only 16% of whites think blacks are treated less fairly than whites at work, but 54% of blacks disagree. Blacks are three times as likely as whites to say they are treated badly in restaurants, public schools and in getting health care. And by 3-1 whites see no need for new civil rights laws.

President Obama stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial this week where King gave his “I have a dream speech.” He was often eloquent, quoting King that the arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, “but it doesn’t bend on its own.” He recalled that King was “seeking jobs as well as justice.”

But he failed to outline a new legislative agenda. He could have asked for a a new Voting Rights Act or a higher minimum wage - knowing that thousands of fast food workers would be striking for higher pay the next day.

He could have proposed to reduce mass incarceration rates by removing mandatory minimum sentences. He might have re-proposed gun control legislation that failed in Congress.

Black attendees were forgiving. “This was not the time for that,” said Mrs. Bertha Crenshaw. Keith Hinnant asserted Obama’s speech ”was inspirational.”

The gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robertson told me, “There were not a lot of specifics – but this was not a State of the Union.”

Obama had a rare national audience listening – which he wasted.

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