Vernon Jordan, former president of the National Urban League and civil rights activist, is in town Wednesday to observe the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.
Fifty years later, many of the hopes of the law remain unfulfilled: Black unemployment is nearly double the national average; the criminal justice system is highly inequitable; and access to higher education is difficult for low income Americans of color.
"What I am stunned by is that northern states -- Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and others -- are passing voter identification laws as cruel, as discriminatory as the segregated white primaries before Smith v. Allwright," he said on The Daily Circuit. "While we thought we were making progress, we seem now to be going back... Our politics seem not to appreciate what needs to be done to make good on the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
Jordan discussed why America is at the place it is today when it comes to racial disparities:
Jordan also responded to Ta-Nehisi Coates' piece in The Atlantic that argues for reparations.
"I've never bought into the whole reparations thing," he said. "I don't know how you work it; I don't know how you qualify people. I think it's a waste of time to talk about it."
Much of his 1978 speech at the National Press Club still rings true to many today:
Because the disproportionate and disadvantaged borne by blacks and other minorities is the heritage of centuries of oppression. It is the residue of a society that practiced institutional discrimination and racism. It is the result of a complex web of federal, local, and private sector practices that operated to the exclusion of blacks and their interests. The rights granted in the 1960s left that structure largely intact. The National Urban League's report, "The State of Black America 1978," documents the fact that "black progress has been limited." In the report's words, "There is a disturbing duality of the black economy, a slowly growing black middle class, and an increasingly jobless lower economic class."
So despite some gains in employment and in education, the masses of black people did not witness significant changes in their lives because of the rights they won in the 1960s. We were poor then; we are poor today. We were disadvantaged then; we remain so today.