In January we commemorate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr.. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, GA. This commeration day provides students with the opportunity to explore the history behind this day and this charismatic man by following the links below. By completing the lesson which follows, students will learn that Civil Rights legislation (developed thanks, in part, to MLK) actually occurred after the beginnings of the development of the black middle class and did not precede it.
- Explain how the legacy of Jim Crow impeded economic prosperity for African-Americans.
- Explain how investment in human capital and willingness to seek new economic opportunities produced economic improvement for African-Americans.
Some Links to Explore
History: From 1900 until 1940, the economic circumstances of most African-Americans improved very little. Four million African-Americans had been freed from slavery after the Civil War, yet many African-Americans remained in jobs as sharecroppers or doing menial work in southern cities. Moreover, the end of Reconstruction witnessed the return of rigid racial segregation. By increasingly formal means, including poll taxes and literacy tests, African-Americans were denied to right to vote. The racial code of Jim Crow had the full force of the law. Yet, in these bleak circumstances, a black middle class began to grow. How could that be?
Economic Reasoning: The roots of the African-American middle class can be traced to the period, 1900 - 1940. It was a time when the literacy and school attendance levels of African-American children were increasing. It was also a period when African-Americans became increasingly willing to move to the North in search of improved economic opportunities. These two factors were important contributors to economic success for African-American families even before the improvements fostered by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
African-Americans faced many barriers to achieving economic success in the United States.
What did the U.S. Supreme Court rule in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson?
- From 1940 to 1980, a large African-American middle class emerged.
- Approximately 53 percent of employed blacks held skilled and white-collar occupations in 1988, compared to 9 percent in 1940.
- One-third of all black families in 1988 had an income of over $35,000.
- Half of the improvement in the relationship between black and white incomes occurred before 1960, before the Civil Rights movement could have had any effect.
- The Civil Rights movement after 1960 was critical in reducing racial barriers to education and employment, but a prior phase of improvement occurred in a period characterized by rigid racial segregation and widespread discrimination. How could that be?
Speculate on reasons an African-American middle class may have emerged in advance of the Civil Rights movement.
The foundation for the development of the African-American middle class lies in investments in human capital by African-American parents and young people. Individuals who invest time or money in more education usually become more productive, get better jobs, and increase their income.
Review the tables below and respond to the questions that follow.
ILLITERACY IN THE SOUTH BY RACE
ILLITERACY IN THE SOUTH FOR BLACKS BY AGE AND SEX
SCHOOL ATTENDANCE RATES IN THE SOUTH
THE GREAT MIGRATION
Source: R. A. Margo, Race and Schooling in the South, 1880-1950: An Economic History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
What was the pattern over time of black illiteracy rates compared to the rates for whites?
What is the pattern of black illiteracy by age?
What is the pattern of school attendance by blacks and whites of different ages?
What is the pattern of black migration out of the South?
Read about Madame Walker by opening this link: Madame C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove McWilliams)
How does her story fit with the data above? Using the Internet, can you find biographies of other successful African-Americans whose accomplishments were made prior to the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s?
Why leave the South?
African-Americans improved their income by leaving the rural South to take better-paying jobs in the North. In 1960, 41 percent of blacks lived in the North, compared to 10 percent in 1900. Why did they migrate?
Improved economic opportunities
The supply of immigrants decreased during World War I. Northern employers turned to southern black men to fill available jobs. The migration of blacks slowed during the 1930s. With the outbreak of World War II, millions of black people left the rural South for jobs in northern cities. African-Americans who were educated were more likely to leave the South than those who had little or no education.
What were the Incentives To Move North?
What were the Disincentives To Stay in the South?
The Civil Rights movement was critical to the establishment of an African-American middle class. Half of the improvement in the relationship between black and white incomes, however, occurred before 1960 - before the Civil Rights movement could have had any effect. How was this possible?
Better education among African-Americans also contributed to increasing dissatisfaction among African-Americans with racial discrimination in the South. The younger and better-educated generations led the Civil Rights movement which, in turn, fostered economic gains for African-Americans in the South. Economic historian Robert A. Margo observes that African-American parents who made sacrifices so their children could become more educated "are the unsung heroes of the Civil Rights movement."
*This lesson adapted from: Wentworth, Donald, Kraig, Beth and Schug, Mark. United States History: Focus on Economics ; National Council on Economic Education, 1996. (pp. 107-118)