I grew up in the segregated South. I tell students the story of how, as a young boy, I went with my mother to Bloomberg’s Department Store on High Street in Portsmouth, Virginia. There was a stack of doilies on the ladies’ hat counter and I asked my mother what they were for. She explained that a black woman had to put a doily on her head before trying on a hat, because a white woman would not purchase a hat that had been on a black woman’s head.
My students think I am making all this up. They refuse to believe such things were true. It is too absurd, they insist.
In his “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” While the problem of discrimination has not been fully resolved, the country has made great progress since King spoke in 1963, which was before passage of the Civil Rights Act.
King also addressed the problem of economic inequality, saying, “The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” In many ways, the problem of economic inequality has gotten worse. And not just for African-Americans.
In his speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, President Barack Obama focused on economic inequality. “It’s along this second dimension — of economic opportunity,” he said, “the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life — where the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.”