In light of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday celebration, USA Today recently asked me about the future of the civil rights movement half a century or so after it began. I told the paper the role of the National Urban League and other civil rights groups was evolving to cater to the younger generation, which possesses no memories of a struggle born well before they were.
Today's youth are looking for something different than their parents and grandparents. They are more likely to believe that the key to greater equality is greater access to financial power than political power.
Instead of fighting for basic rights guaranteed to Americans, we are now fighting for our economic future. There is no doubt that Blacks have made great progress in surmounting past challenges and thriving in the 21st century: Our quality of life has improved as has our future.
In 1960, 20.1 percent of Blacks graduated from high school, which was a little less than half the percentage of Whites. Now, 81.1 percent hold high school degrees or higher — compared to 86 percent of Whites.
High school dropout rates have fallen to nearly one half of what they were in 1975 – 27.3 percent to 15.1 percent in 2004, narrowing the gap with Whites of 13.4 percentage points to three. Since 1970, life expectancy has risen 11.4 years, while that of Whites has increased seven years.
In "The State of Blacks America 2006," the National Urban League found the overall status of Blacks to be at 73 percent of Whites. In terms of health, education and social justice, Blacks were from 74 to 78 percent of Whites and even surpassed Whites in civic engagement. However, economically, they lagged substantially behind at just 56 percent.
Despite educational improvements, the gap in salaries has actually widened since 1960 when the median income of Blacks households was roughly $14,000 less than Whites in 2004 dollars. Now, that difference has expanded to $21,372 despite a near doubling of household income.
There was a time when African Americans were denied the right to own property. In 2004, home ownership among Blacks hit an all-time high of nearly 50 percent. We must also be able to maintain and secure that ownership for generations to come. And it is not enough for our children to just graduate high school. To obtain the jobs of the future, they will need to go to college at the very least to acquire the skills of the future and gain the financial freedom we desire for them.
Dr. King realized that to keep the movement alive he needed to begin to expand its scope to issues standing in the way of greater equality such as poverty and the Vietnam War, causing consternation within the Johnson administration.
After all, it wasn't just about guaranteeing basic inalienable rights, the inner-city ghettos in northern cities emerged out of poor economic conditions — not necessarily out of political circumstance. The riots of the late 1960s occurred in areas where residents had the right to vote for years and where the first Blacks after Reconstruction won election.
We must concede that the challenges now faced by the Black community are somewhat different from the 1960s. Our youth have our legacy in their hands. We can either engage them and emerge stronger or ignore them and relinquish our power.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.