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Civil Rights: How Far Have We Come?

On August 28, 1993, more than 100,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. They went there to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the historic 1963 March on Washington, led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

The 1963 march has been called "the most magnificent demonstration of interracial unity that this nation had ever seen." Millions of TV viewers bore witness as the world heard King's electrifying "I Have a Dream" speech for the first time. The marchers — black and white, young and old, rich and poor — held hands and sang a song called "We Shall Overcome." It expressed their hope that "black and white together" would some day live in peace, equality, and understanding. The march was a high point in the U.S. black civil-rights movement.

Civil rights are the freedoms and rights that a person has as a member of a community, state, or nation. In the U.S., these rights are guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution and acts of Congress.

Since the 1960s, many laws have been passed to guarantee civil rights to all Americans. But the struggle continues. Today, not only blacks, but many other groups — including women, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, people with disabilities, homosexuals, the homeless, and other minorities — are waging civil-rights campaigns.

The theme of the 1963 March on Washington was "jobs, justice, and peace." The 1993 anniversary march had the same theme — proof that, although African-Americans have made great strides forward, there is still much to be done. Let's take a look at three problem areas — housing, education, and the political arena — where many African-Americans still do not enjoy equality with other Americans.

HOUSING: A TWO-HEADED PROBLEM

Most people agree that decent housing is a basic right. Yet millions of Americans live in substandard housing — or have no housing at all. They live that way because they cannot afford better — or are kept out of better housing by discrimination (unfair treatment).

Many African-Americans fit into one or both of those categories. "Black people, especially women, still are at the bottom of the economic ladder, [even though] we've been in the workforce for hundreds of years," says Susan L. Taylor, editor in chief of a magazine for African-American women.

Housing that poor people can afford is often in terrible condition. Many landlords with low-income tenants neglect their property, not bothering to make even the most basic repairs. Few poor tenants can afford the time or money to fight back. Buildings owned by city or federal agencies may be no better.

A sizable number of African-Americans can afford better housing, but are kept out by racism. It is against the law to deny someone housing because of his or her race. But fair-housing laws are bent or broken all the time. Real-estate agents "forget" to show blacks houses in white neighborhoods. Landlords with several applicants for an apartment "just happen" to choose a white applicant instead of a black one.

Government officials and civil-rights leaders are still looking for solutions to the twin housing problems of poverty and racism. If you had to come up with a plan, what would it be?

STILL IN A DIFFERENT CLASS

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated (separate) schools are unconstitutional. That ruling served as a powerful tool in the struggle to improve education for millions of young African-Americans. But the fight is not over yet.

Civil-rights laws have made it illegal to deny a student admittance to a school because of his or her race. But in many parts of the country, schools are still segregated, if only by circumstance. Most kids attend a school close to where they live. Since blacks and whites still often live apart, they often learn apart as well.

The same conditions that cause housing problems for African-Americans also harm young blacks' chances for quality educations and good jobs. If a neighborhood is poor, so is its public school, in most cases. Kids in well-off public schools and expensive private schools have up-to-date textbooks, computers, VCRs, and lots of extracurricular activities to round out their education. But kids in inner-city schools with smaller budgets have to make do with old equipment, outdated books, and few or no special programs.

Even when blacks and whites attend the same schools, they often run into another kind of segregation. Unless teachers, school officials, parents, or students make a special effort, white kids tend to hang out with other whites, and black kids with other blacks. "If Michael Jackson thinks, 'It don't matter if you're black or white,' he should visit my school," writes Brian Jarvis, 16, in a Newsweek article about "the great divide" between the races at his public school.

How equal is education for blacks and whites where you live? If it works well, why? If it doesn't, how might it be fixed?

CASTING VOTES FOR A BETTER FUTURE

In 1963, when John Lewis was 23 and the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, all 535 members of the U.S. Congress were white. Today, Lewis is one of 38 blacks in the House of Representatives. (There is one black in the Senate.)

After more than 200 years of hope, heartache, and hard work, African-Americans are closer than ever to having true representatives in the House. (African-Americans are 12.4 percent of the U.S. population and 9 percent of House members.)

To increase their impact on national policies and programs. African-American members of Congress often work together as the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Says CBC member Ronald V. Dellums (Democrat of California): "We get up every day with the idealism and the optimism that our participation can bring about change."

Increasing numbers of African-Americans are serving as governors, mayors, and local officials. African-Americans are also making their power felt at the voting booth. Politicians, white and black, seek their support in election campaigns.

There is no doubt that African-Americans have made great gains since 1963. But black leaders say that problems still remain.

"In 1963," says Lewis, "there was a greater sense of purpose and optimism among African-Americans about the possibility of progressive [forward-moving] change. . . . [But today we see]. . .that racism is more pervasive [widespread] than previously thought."

So what comes next? Should we be satisfied with the progress already made? Or should Americans — black and white together — work harder to achieve the 1963 march's goals of jobs, justice, and peace?

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