Following the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, civil rights leaders began to focus their attention on the economic plight of African Americans. March organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin argued that the Civil Rights movement would advance only when the broader issues of social and economic equality were addressed.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in public facilities, but it did not erase the cumulative effects of years of racism. Decades of discrimination in education and employment seriously limited the economic prospects of many African Americans. In 1965, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 65 percent of black children were born into poverty, compared to 14.4 percent of whites. Half of all African Americans lived in substandard housing, and blacks were twice as likely as whites to be unemployed. While de jure (by law) segregation had been eliminated by civil rights legislation, more subtle forms of de facto (in fact) segregation still remained. In cities like Boston and Chicago, real estate discrimination and segregated housing patterns confined a significant portion of the black community to urban ghettos.
In 1966, Rustin and Randolph embarked on a national tour to introduce the Freedom Budget for All Americans. Drafted by Leon H. Keyserling, President Harry S. Truman's chief economic advisor, the plan was designed to end poverty in the United States by 1975. It called for increasing the federal budget from $112 to $155 billion over nine years, increasing the minimum wage to $2 an hour, increasing spending on education, housing, health services, and job training, and establishing a guaranteed income program for all.
Rustin and Randolph toured several cities to promote the Freedom Budget; organized labor, religious organizations, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supported it. Ultimately, the Freedom Budget was a tough sell. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was preoccupied by the Vietnam War. Across the country, rising inflation caused by increased defense spending limited support for extra spending from both fiscal conservatives and liberals alike.
In 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was planning a similar Poor People's Campaign when he was assassinated. Richard Nixon, during his presidential campaign that year, rejected the Freedom Budget outright: "The demand for a Freedom Budget, amounting to billions of dollars for the poor, is not the road to bring people out of poverty into the sunshine of self-respect and human dignity." When Nixon was elected, the division between the Republican president and the Democratic Congress further minimized the chances of passing the Freedom Budget through the legislature.
Although the proposal was formally abandoned in 1971, Rustin continued to promote social and economic equality until his death in 1987.