"Right now, at the state level, African-Americans have no say in Southern politics," says Bositis.
The King assassination
The death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the seminal events in the half-century after the March on Washington. His murder removed a master strategist, a strong moral voice and someone who was to become an icon to blacks and whites alike -- though it's easy to forget how much he was vilified by whites while he was still alive.
Coming during the advent of black militancy and the emergence of groups such as the Black Panther Party, King's death frightened whites and made many more susceptible to "law and order" rhetoric from politicians.
"Martin Luther King's death left a powerful moral and political vacuum in America," says Peniel Joseph, director of the Center of Race and Democracy at Tufts University. "His campaign to end poverty and antiwar activism were coalescing into a powerful movement shortly before his death. Black Power revolutionaries such as Stokely Carmichael respected King and might have been part of a broad-based human rights coalition."
Whether King would have worked with the new militants and softened their tough rhetoric and tactics or whether King would have been drawn toward the ideology of separatism that was gaining sway is a question that can never be answered. At the time of his death he was losing support among many young black activists who saw him as too accommodating and his tactic of nonviolence too timid.
What is clear is that, with King gone, the movement lost its most effective advocate at reaching across racial lines, using both the soaring oratory of the preacher and the intellect of a philosopher to drive home the point that eliminating oppression is everybody's concern:
"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," King wrote in "Letter from a Birmingham jail," four months before the March on Washington.
Julian Bond, chairman emeritus of the NAACP, calls King's death "a greater loss than we realize."
"We no longer had the guy who was speaking to white people and black people in the same language," Bond says. "I can't think of anybody who could do that in the way he did."
The Arab oil boycott and the rise of OPEC
The huge gains in civil rights and expansions of government programs to aid minorities and the poor took place during a time of almost unprecedented economic prosperity, much of it resting on a foundation of cheap oil from the Middle East. The gross domestic product per capita went from $15,644 in 1960 to $23,155 in 1973, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports (using 2005 dollars). Unemployment fell from around 7% in the spring and summer of 1961 to 4% at the end of 1965 and stayed at or below that for the rest of the decade. Median household income rose an astonishing 70% from 1950 to 1972. Whites felt happy and economically safe and many were willing, albeit grudgingly, to support desegregation efforts and government programs, such as Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, designed to lift black people. Even Richard Nixon, a conservative Republican, felt politically secure enough in his first term to back the strongest type of affirmative action measures -- fixed numerical quotas.
This relatively idyllic racial environment exploded in October 1973 when Egyptian jets roared over the Sinai Peninsula to start the Yom Kippur War. Angered by U.S. support for Israel during the conflict, a group of Persian Gulf oil producers led by Saudi Arabia halted exports to the United States and cut overall production. Then the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries began collective action to control, and raise oil prices. In 1970, oil cost $1.80 a barrel. In 1979, after the fall of the Shah of Iran, it was $34 a barrel. Today it hovers around $100 a barrel.
Economic good times lurched to a halt. The gross national product plunged by 6% between 1973 and 1975. Unemployment doubled during that time. Inflation soared. Business reacted to the increased cost of energy by holding down wages and began shipping jobs overseas searching for cheaper labor. Median household income actually fell from $36,451 in 1973 to $34,021 in 1996.
"It was a hard time," says Daniel Yergin, author of "The Quest: Energy, Security and the Remaking of the Modern World." "A lot of people were losing jobs, or feared they were going to lose jobs. Businesses were not investing. It led to a kind of bitterness in American politics."
White "tolerance" of civil rights, never strong to begin with, dried up. In 1978 the Passage of Proposition 13 in California heralded a revolt against taxes and government spending that persists until this day. "Preferences" for blacks and Hispanics came under attack in the courts and at the ballot boxes. In 1980 Ronald Reagan, running on cutting taxes and spending -- including funding "welfare queens" -- won in a landslide.
Some have argued that the "civil rights era" ended in Memphis when a sniper's bullet cut down Martin Luther King. A strong case could be made that it died in the Vienna meeting rooms of OPEC, the palaces of Riyadh and the streets of Tehran.
Milliken v. Bradley
In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a court-ordered school integration plan that involved busing black students from Detroit into 53 white suburban school districts. In rejecting the plan, the justices ruled that unless a suburban district has been involved in creating a segregated school district, it could not be subjected to court-mandated desegregation plans. In his dissent, Justice Thurgood Marshall called the ruling a "giant step backwards."
Indeed, Milliken effectively brought an abrupt end to school integration efforts across district lines. From then on, school integration only took place in cities that had annexed suburban areas, or naturally when African-Americans moved out to the suburbs.