August 28 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, best remembered for Martin Luther King’s visionary speech anticipating the day when Americans “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
But the March on Washington was not only a demonstration for civil rights. Its full name was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and its demands extended beyond civil rights and voting rights to include economic rights. The 250,000 Americans who assembled around the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool demanded the rights to get and keep a job, live in a decent home, obtain quality healthcare and education, and escape from poverty.
Over the five years that followed, Congress enacted a broad and ambitious array of “Great Society” initiatives introduced by Lyndon Johnson in response to the nationwide calls amplified by those who marched in 1963. The most famous programs of that era include the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), Medicare (1965), and Medicaid (1965). But those years also saw passage of legislation touching almost every dimension of our social and economic lives:
- The Economic Opportunity Act (1964) created Job Corps, VISTA, and other job training programs intended to alleviate poverty;
- the Food Stamp Act (1964) expanded the Food Stamp Program that had been piloted in 1961;
- the Urban Mass Transportation Act (1964) authorized funding for mass transit and created what is now the Federal Transit Administration;
- the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965) ended immigration preferences for northern Europeans;
- the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) provided federal financial assistance for educational opportunities and emphasized equal access to education for all;
- the Higher Education Act (1965) provided financial assistance for postsecondary students;
- the Older Americans Act (1965) funded health, nutrition, and civil rights services for the elderly;
- the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act (1966) provided for better coordination of public projects in cities and transportation projects nationwide; and
- the Fair Housing Act (1968) outlawed racial discrimination in the private housing market.
LBJ recognized that not all these new programs would work—that some would be effective while others would fall disappointingly short of their goals, that problems would evolve over time, and that causality wasn’t yet well understood. So he chartered a commission of business and civic leaders to figure out how best to apply scientific evidence and analysis to the social and economic policy challenges of the day—the challenges that brought so many Americans to Washington in 1963.
The Urban Institute is the product of that commission’s deliberations. At its launch in 1968, Johnson’s remarks echoed the idealism of the March for Jobs and Freedom: “The work the Institute will do—the studies and the evaluations and the free and searching inquiries—will build the strongest foundation upon which we can renew our cities and transform the lives of people.”
In the years since, we’ve done our best to live up to LBJ’s vision for the Urban Institute. The March on Washington’s calls for equity and access to opportunity echo through our research on health care, tax policy, criminal justice, workforce development, housing and neighborhoods, and the social safety net.
But the poverty, inequality, and hardship that catalyzed the March on Washington haven’t been eradicated. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting our most current analyses of disparities between blacks and whites in America, and how they’ve changed (or not) since 1963. We hope you’ll join us in a fact-based conversation about how our country can move closer to the realization of MLK’s dream.