Fifty years ago, Rosa Parks sat down on a Montgomery, Alabama bus and ignited a mass movement that was to sweep away many of the barriers that faced black Americans.
Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man – an act of insolence that risked jail, or even death at the hands of vigilantes – would inspire black Americans to demand integration and legal equality with whites.
But while applauding the achievements of those who struggled, many African Americans also question how far they have really come.
Their experiences challenge the assumption among many whites that the battle for equality has been fought and won. The statistics paint a patchy picture, and frequently a grimmer one.
Life is very different for black people in Montgomery, Alabama today compared to 1955.
Then, they were forbidden from drinking from the same water fountain as white people, using the same restrooms or the same restaurants, or going to the cinema to watch a film beside white people.
They were not permitted to take their children to the city’s parks, though black maids were allowed to accompany the white children of their employers.
“If you head down Dexter Avenue, black citizens can now walk into Chris’s Hotdogs, founded in 1918. Before, black citizens had to go to the back door and order takeout only – now they can sit at the lunch counter,” said Kenneth Mullinax, media director for the Montgomery Improvement Association, a campaign group formed days after Parks’ arrest and headed by Martin Luther King.
“If you were looking to buy clothes in a store, and you were to try a hat on, you had to have a special device so that your head wouldn’t touch the top of the hat.
“Now, black citizens… can have due process of law. They can join the various civic clubs and associations. Their children can be taught in bi-racial schools which have all the books they need and the very best teachers. Rosa Parks lit a spark which changed the very fabric of society,” Mr Mullinax told the BBC News website.
Parks’ stand triggered a boycott of the buses. Nearly a year later the US Supreme Court declared local laws requiring segregated buses were illegal.
More boycotts, sit-ins and protest marches followed, culminating in 1960s legislation that outlawed racial discrimination and established voting rights for black people.
Gap only ‘narrowing’
But decades on, asked whether America’s 37 million black people have achieved equality with white Americans, the chairman of the civil rights group NAACP, Julian Bond, laments that they are “far, far from it.
“The gap 50 years ago when Rosa Parks sat on that bus was wide in every category. Today if you look at a long list of statistics, then you’ll see that in one respect the gap has almost disappeared, and in other aspects it has narrowed, but not to the point where we can say ‘job well done’.”
On some counts, African Americans have made significant strides since the civil rights movement began. In high-school graduation rates, the gap has almost closed, and they can claim much greater political representation.
But in many other areas, though progress has been made, a substantial gap remains.
In 1959, more than half of black people lived below the poverty line, compared to less than a fifth of white people. Today it is a quarter, compared to a tenth of the white population.
They are still twice as likely to be jobless as white people, as they were in 1972.
Black people are more likely both to perpetrate and be victims of violence. The US Bureau of Justice estimates nearly a third of black men will be incarcerated during their lifetime, compared to less than one in 16 white men. Meanwhile, black people were six times more likely to be murdered than whites in 2002.
On some health gauges, the gulf between black and white is eye-opening. In 2002, 14.4 of 1,000 black babies died before they reached a year old, next to 5.7 of every 1,000 white babies.
Black people are living several years longer now than they did in 1955, but black men can still expect to die on average over six years earlier than white men, and black women 4.7 years earlier than white.
Michael Dawson, professor of political science at Chicago University, says continuing – perhaps unconscious – racism accounts for some of these differences, citing studies which suggest that people with similar resources and symptoms will receive different health care based on their skin colour.
For the NAACP’s Mr Bond, this is a legacy of slavery, where “black skin still acts as a mark of difference – for many white Americans, a negative difference”.
But most commentators agree that economic class is also an important factor. As black people tend to be poorer, they live in poorer environments, suffering poor housing and nutrition, and greater pollution. Associated with poverty are higher Aids rates and, for young men, a greater incidence of violence.
On these poverty-related counts, little or no progress is being made, because little or no progress is being made in tackling poverty overall, says Prof Dawson.
“One could argue in some substantial ways that things have changed for the worse for poor people in the United States – and this has had the biggest effects on poor black people and other minority groups,” he says.
One reason, he says, is that wages have fallen in real terms – in part the result of the decline of the manufacturing industry and lowering unionisation of the workplace. Along with that, he blames “the dismantling of the social safety net”.
And like the rest of the US population, black Americans are experiencing a widening gulf between a well-off minority and the poor bulk.
In 1968, the top 5% of the black population took 15.9% of the black community’s wealth. By 2004, that had reached 20.8%. Meanwhile, the poorest 20% of the population must make do with only 2.8% of the wealth, down from 4%.
According to Mr Bond, that has resulted in a few icons of “black success” who obscure the continued poverty and discrimination experienced by many.
Back in Montgomery, Mr Mullinax puts it a different way.
“Whereas race was a major cause of the segregation in the 1950s, today it seems to be economic. The colour barrier now is green – the colour of money.” BBC