Just north of 125th Street, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture displays a timeline of black political activism. The familiar faces— Garvey, DuBois, King, Malcolm X, Jackson— are all there. So is a picture of a group of black protesters, men and women, in long coats, fedoras and pillbox hats picketing against discriminatory hiring practices by defense contractors … in 1943. One man is holding a sign that reads, “The Negro People Must Have Jobs.”

The popular history of the black civil rights movement usually focuses on its quest for legal rights like the ability to attend previously all-white schools, sit at the front of the bus or eat at Jim Crow lunch counters. But bread-and-butter issues were always at the movement’s core, because black-white disparities in the job market have been present almost since what Hilary Shelton, director for the NAACP’s Washington bureau, calls “that very peculiar employment program, the African slave trade.”

It wasn’t until the middle part of last century, however, that those disparities began showing up in the unemployment rate. According to U.S. Census data, in 1880 the rate of joblessness for white men was 8.5 percent, higher than the black rate of 6.6 percent. In 1910, 5.2 percent of black men were jobless, compared with 7.1 percent for white males. The numbers only began to diverge in 1940.

Even after that, the image of the jobless man was far paler than today’s reality. “In my youth the Bowery, for instance, was all white men. You’d never see a black man. That’s when the Bowery was Skid Row,” recalls David Jones, president and CEO of the Community Service Society, a nonprofit service, policy research and advocacy organization (CSS is the current owner of City Limits). “I got the sense that it was very rare to see a black man out of work. They had low-wage, sometimes menial jobs, but they were working.”

But barriers to work were already stirring some blacks to action. In June 1941, the Harlem labor leader A. Philip Randolph—founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters—threatened to march on FDR’s Washington to protest the lack of jobs open to blacks in the defense industry, a pretty bold challenge to a Democratic president elected three times and perceived as friendly to blacks.

In post-Pearl Harbor America, racial rifts in America’s labor market became more obvious. Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 work An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy explored unemployment disparities between the races. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” claimed that “the fundamental, overwhelming fact is that Negro unemployment, with the exception of a few years during World War II and the Korean War, has continued at disaster levels for 35 years.” Moynihan pointed out that the national black-white comparison had been masking a divergence: While unemployment in the South was about the same for whites and blacks, in the rest of the country a substantial gap opened up as early as 1930. The disparity grew over the next decade to a 2-1 ratio outside the South. The gap was becoming like a canyon. “From 1951 to 1963, the level of the Negro male unemployment was on a long-run rising trend, while at the same time following the short-run ups and downs of the business cycle,” Moynihan wrote.

A few weeks before he was killed, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke in Grosse Point, Mich. “We find in the other America unemployment constantly rising to astronomical proportions, and black people generally find themselves living in a literal depression,” he said. “All too often when there is mass unemployment in the black community, it’s referred to as a social problem, and when there is mass unemployment in the white community, it’s referred to as a depression. But there is no basic difference.”

The trend of increasing black joblessness and a growing gap between white and black unemployment continued through the 1970s. In the 1981-82 recession, when overall unemployment neared 11 percent, the black-male rate shot over 22 percent. In 1987, then-University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson published his seminal work, The Truly Disadvantaged, which reported that innercity joblessness was at “catastrophic proportions.” Black unemployment ended the decade stuck in double digits, then swelled again in the recession of the early 1990s.

When the economic expansion of the 1990s arrived—the longest economic boom in American history—black unemployment was sliced in half, from 15.6 percent at the height of the 1991 recession to 7.2 percent in 2000. And blacks with the least skills saw the biggest reductions in unemployment.

But the proportion of black men (in fact, all men) who were jobless—neither employed nor officially unemployed—continued to grow despite the boom. Men were less likely to lose their jobs in the 1990s than they had been in earlier decades, but those who were out of work stayed out longer. According to some interpretations, the reduction of unemployment in the 1990s had as much to do with black and white men leaving the labor force as their finding jobs. “In terms of total joblessness, the often-praised boom of the 1990s really represented little in the way of employment progress for American males” was how one 2002 study summed up the decade.

What gains there had been for blacks during the 1990s eroded quickly in the 2002-03 recession. Blackmale unemployment hit double digits even before al Qaeda hit the Twin Towers. The post-September 11 recession was, by most measures, fairly mild and brief. But the national recovery of the past decade wasn’t much of a boom. Fueled by federal tax cuts that rewarded high incomes and unearned wealth, the 2004-2007 expansion never reduced unemployment to the low levels seen at the economy’s peak in 2000.

“We never quite got back to where we were at the end of a very impressive run at the end of the 1990s, and I think you see that across the groups,” says Mark Levitan, director of poverty research at the city’s Center for Economic Opportunity.

That meant the national black-male unemployment rate never dipped below 8 percent during the past decade, and it was often higher than that. In New York City, which enjoyed a more robust recovery than most places, the percentage of blacks participating in the labor force never returned to the levels reached at the height of the ’90s boom. Even at the peak of the good times in the five boroughs, black unemployment in New York City remained stuck at above 7 percent (for white women the monthly rate went as low as 2).

So black New Yorkers entered the current downturn already suffering discomfort. “In effect,” read a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, “minorities began the recession in a recession.”

Why the focus on black men? Latinos also post higher unemployment than whites, but do substantially better than blacks, and the contours of the Latino employment picture are shaped by a steadily increasing population share, fed by natural growth and immigration, very different from the story in the black labor market. And while black women also suffer unemployment at a rate higher than white women, they are doing far better than black men.

To be sure, because white people far outnumber blacks in the city, more whites are unemployed than blacks. The important thing is how the populations are faring relative to their size in the city. Black men are 11 percent of the city’s work force but 18 percent of the unemployed. White men are 31 percent of the workforce and 33 percent of the unemployed. So both groups are overrepresented—white men by 7 percent, black men by 57 percent.

New York State is not unique for the level of black unemployment it’s posting. According to figures from the third quarter of 2009, Michigan led the nation, with a 23.9 percent black-male unemployment rate. South Carolina (20.4 percent), Ohio (19.5 percent) and several other states ranked above New York’s then 15.5 percent rate.

There’s no question that black-male unemployment is high across the country. The real question is: Why?