On March 7, 1965, about 600 marchers gathered in Selma, Alabama, to demand the right to vote. Their plan was to walk to Montgomery, the Alabama state capital, but when they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge they were beaten by state and local police. The nationally televised footage of this brutal attack, known afterward as “Bloody Sunday,” was seen by millions of outraged Americans.
Weeks later, on March 21, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led 3200 marchers to Montgomery. They slept by the side of the road at night and walked about 12 miles a day. By the time they reached the capital, the number of demonstrators swelled to 25,000. It felt as if change were possible—and that it was coming soon.
How Much Progress Have We Made?
The men and women who marched from Selma helped lay the foundation for the most important civil-rights legislation of the 20th century. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act just a few months later. The marchers’ hard work and sacrifice were making a difference.
But as we look back, 53 years later, it’s worth asking how much has really changed. Yes, American society has made some progress, but not as much as you might think… or hope. Let’s honor the courage of the men and women who put their bodies on the line in Selma by finishing what they started.
Close the Gap Between Rich and Poor
The gap between rich and poor in our country has hit record levels, and there are few indications that the trend is about to reverse any time soon. Between 1963 and 2016, the amount of wealth controlled by the wealthiest 1% of the country has increased by almost tenfold. Meanwhile, the poorest 10% of the country has seen their average family wealth decline significantly into debt territory.
That’s bad enough. But if you dig into the numbers, a stark racial wealth gap emerges as well. Adjusting for inflation (using 2016 dollars), the average amount of wealth owned by a white family in 1963 was $140,633. That same year, average family wealth for non-white Americans was $19,504. In 2016, those numbers were $919,336 for white families and $139,523 for black families. In other words, while blacks have made modest gains in average family wealth over time, white family wealth has skyrocketed.
Today, more than 95 million Americans are either in poverty or considered “low income.” The overall poverty rate, 12.7%, is about the same today as it was in 1968, the level of “deep poverty” has increased. Deep poverty is having an income less than half the federal poverty level. In 1975 (earliest available statistics) the rate of deep poverty was 3.7%. Today it’s 5.8%.
Childhood poverty is also on the rise. The rate of childhood poverty was 15.6% in 1968 and 18% in 2016.
End Mass Incarceration
Since the 1960s, the US prison population has boomed. In 1965, there were about 187,914 people in prison or jail. And now, that number, by some counts, is up to around 2.3 million. In fact, our incarceration rate is ridiculously high compared to the rest of the world.
Communities of color have been hit hardest by the criminal justice system’s fixation on locking people up. No race data exists before 1978, but we do know that nonwhites made less than half of the prison population that year. In 2015 that number was 66%.
Restore the Voting Rights Act
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) was intended to clear away all the Jim Crow-era restrictions on voting. Eventually, the VRA led to massive increases in black voter registration and turnout. For decades, extending the law was an uncontroversial and bipartisan process. But in 2013, with the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, everything changed.
That decision gutted the VRA, rendering it ineffective. And since then dozens of voter-suppression laws have cropped up all over the country. Which means that, for many communities, it feels like 1965 all over again.
Reduce Military Spending
Back in 1976, we spent $354 billion on the military and $153 billion on social programs such as poverty mitigation. In 2016, we spent $630 billion on the military and only $183 billion on social programs, about four times as much!
Make Our Voices Heard
The 1960s were an era marked by huge student protests. The civil rights movement in particular was fueled by student leaders and young activists who registered voters, fought segregation, and took to the streets in places like Selma.
In the wake of the horrific shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, the youth have again taken the lead. As they have in recent years in the Black Lives Matter movement, or at the People’s Climate March and the Women’s March, young people are making their voices heard and demanding change. This surge of activism has come at just the right time. Yes, a lot of work remains to be done, but students and young activists are showing us the way forward—as they always have.
More than 50 years have passed since those marchers risked their lives on the road from Selma to Montgomery. What they did in 1965 changed America, but much more remains to be done to make their dream of a just and fair society a reality.
Join us in supporting the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival so that together we can put an end to systemic racism, systemic poverty, environmental degradation, and American militarism.