Why Blacks Need a New Dream: Fulfilling the Economic Hopes of Dr. King


The Civil Rights movement produced significant political gains for African Americans, for instance, the Congressional Black Caucus has grown from nine founding members to 42.  Yet today, major economic advancements remain unattained.   In too many critical areas African American progress has stagnated or decreased in the 50 years since Dr. King’s speech.   The goals of the economic ‘silver rights’ movement, as most notably championed by John Hope Bryant, have yet to be clearly executed, enforced and taken up exclusively by any one legacy civil rights organization since Dr. King’s premature assassination.

Pushing the barometer forward will require a defined vision to execute the other ‘dream’, entrepreneurship and economic equality, and the same comprehensive approach in advocacy and collaboration that Dr. King endeavored to achieve in 1968 with his Poor People’s Campaign (PCC).

The loss of leadership is evidenced today through analysis of progress within three key components of the PCC five-point Economic Bill of Rights.

A meaningful job at a living wage for every employable citizen

African-Americans continue to experience higher than average unemployment rates, lower per-capita income and pervasive wage disparities.

Understanding marginalization of minorities to low-wage positions and the struggles of the working poor, March on Washington organizers also proposed to increase the minimum wage.  Today, such wage increases have not kept pace with inflation and African-Americans, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, account for 13.1% of the working poor, more than double that of Whites at 6.1%.   Current numbers represent an overall decrease in poverty for African Americans yet also reflect the highest poverty rate nationally since the 1960’s.

In addition to the working poor, those who have jobs but still find themselves below the poverty line African Americans continue to experience a disproportionally higher unemployment rate than other ethnicities.   A recent Pew Foundation report found that since the 1954, African American unemployment has remained roughly double that of Whites reflected by rates of 5.5% and 9.9% and 6.6% and 12% (September 2013), respectively.

Furthermore, in roughly 50 years, despite strides in African American educational attainment, the Black/White per capita income disparity has closed by a mere 9-percent and wage disparity remains large.    In 1967, per-capita income (adjusted to 2011 dollars) for African Americans and Whites was represented by income of $15,332 and $8,255 respectively.   In 2011, those figures were $29,401 versus $18,357 for African Americans.   This disparity is mirrored in the persistent wage gap that places African American at 74.5% (for men) and 69.6% (for women) as compared to White men.

Then and now these figures are exacerbated by geographical location, pockets of concentrated poverty, and limited social capital supports, which have furthered deficiencies in minority communities and limited entrepreneurial supports, a lasting remnant of segregation.

Access to land

The African American home ownership rate has increased less than one percentage point since 1970 and has essentially dissipated in the area of agricultural lands.

According to the US Census Bureau’s Homeownership Rates by Race and Ethnicity of Householder reports, African Americans maintain the lowest ownership rates of all races in the country reflected by 42.9-percent.  In 1970 (race was not recorded in 1960) this figure was 41.6%, and 34.5% in 1950.    Much of the stagnation in home ownership can be attributed to the destructive impact of the Sub-Prime Mortgage Crisis which unfairly targeted Blacks and minorities and dissipated a “generation of economic progress”.

Home ownership, however, was not the only form of land ownership Dr. King intended; agricultural land ownership was also of concern.

According to statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 1964 African Americans represented roughly 5% of total US farmland ownership, in 2007 (the last year of recording) this figure was less than 1%.  In 1910, at its peak, African American farmland ownership was roughly 14-percent.

While it is true that the US agricultural industry has declined considerably over the last five decades, the Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation Settlement which was reached in 2011, determined that the decline within the African American community was not only market-driven but also a result of discriminatory practices by the USDA.

After enduring a twenty year battle, roughly 18,000 U.S. farmers are received their $1.2 billion dollar settlement payment this fall.  This restitution cannot however recover the lost land and talent –by the ‘80s there were less than 2,000 black farmers under the age of 25 – that have withered in the years since.

Access to capital

Capital, the lifeblood of economic growth and entrepreneurialism, remains less accessible and more expensive for African Americans.

Interestingly, the post Civil War Reconstruction years gave birth to more Black banks than currently exist in the United States today.  At its zenith, between 1888 and 1934 there were 134 Black-owned banks; today there are less than thirty.

In addition to the decline of institutions specializing in minority lending, research conducted by the Minority Business Development Agency (established in 1969 to address minority business inequities and the only minority-focused business agency within the United States government) showed that African American and minority firms: are less likely to receive loans than non-minority firms, receive lower loan amounts than non-minority firms, are more likely to be denied loans, and when accepted pay higher interest rates.   The report also found that minorities were less likely to apply for a loan due to rejection fears, a fairly substantiated concern.

In 1930 there were roughly 50,000 African American owned businesses in the US.  Today, Black businesses represent the fastest growing entrepreneurial segment in the country growing at a rate of 60.5% between 2002 and 2007, this is despite identified credit constraints.

In closing, every year we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with heartfelt recounts of his renowned 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” and an emphasis that is more emphatically placed on Dr. King’s socio-political message of peace and civic equality.  What is commonly void however is the minority entrepreneurship and economic access agenda that King himself recognized as a critical component to true parity and the basis for the very rally in which he delivered his acclaimed speech, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Natalie Madeira Cofield is President & CEO of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce and Founder of Walker’s Legacy, a women in business collective designed to help women of color walk into their professional passion and purpose. She is a frequent writer on topics of entrepreneurship and economic development in minority communities. She can be found on twitter at @ncofield.