“Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado” declared Martin Luther King, Jr.in his I have a dream speech fifty years ago today. King’s speech, one of the most eloquent in the nation’s history, was the soaring culmination of the March on Washington. Three quarters of the more than 200,000 men, women and children were black, the rest white, all dressed in suits and ties or dresses. They were as awed then as we are today by King’s magnificent speech and the dream of a “day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands.”
King dreamed that one day the nation would honor the words of the Declaration of Independence and guarantee the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all men and women regardless of color. He envisaged a colorblind nation where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
We are closer to that day. As a recent Time Magazine article points out, the statistical gap between blacks and whites has narrowed in terms of high school completion, college diplomas, business ownership, and home ownership. Fifty years ago, 29% of blacks and 15% of whites dropped out of school. Today, 7% of blacks and 5% of whites drop out of school. Business ownership by blacks has more than tripled and home ownership has grown substantially. While only 8% whites and 4% of blacks attained at least a bachelor degree in the early 1960s, 35% and 21% of students respectively do today. Housing segregation is the lowest it has been in nearly 100 years.
In the state of Colorado where 4% of the population is black compared to 14% nationwide, the outlook is somewhat better. Colorado has a lower poverty rate among African Americans than does the nation. Black unemployment rates are lower in Colorado than the nation. The rate of home and business ownership among African Americans in Colorado is similar to the rate nationwide. Housing segregation has declined. The Urban Institute and the Population Reference Bureau recently declared Colorado Springs one of the least segregated cities in the nation.
While Colorado has come a long way since 1963, there is still room to improve. I-News at Rocky Mountain PBS recently reported that 45% of black babies are born out of wedlock compared to 18% of white babies. Forty-two percent of white adults over 25 have graduated from college compared to 19% of black adults over 25 years of age. The median family income is $67,892 for white families and $39,900 for black families.
Blacks are disproportionally arrested, convicted, and sentenced. The Colorado Department of Corrections reports that 13% of all individuals convicted of crimes are black, even though they are only 4% of the state’s population.
Educational outcomes for black students are lower than for whites. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 21% of black fourth graders are at grade level in math compared to 60% of white fourth graders. In reading, proficiency rates are 18% and 51% respectively. At the 8th grade level, gaps are narrower only because the percentage of white students at grade level is slightly lower than in 4th grade.
The statistics do not lend themselves to easy answers but do suggest that the journey to greater opportunity and equality still has a few miles to go.