After Fifty Years, Remember the March on Washington was for JOBS as Well as Freedom

tags: Martin Luther King, MLK, jobs, income inequality, March on Washington, Jeff Roquen



8-21-13

Jeff Roquen is a PhD candidate at Lehigh University.


Credit: Wiki Commons

What do you know about the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963? Half a century later, the historical memory of the watershed event has been encapsulated in two sound bites from Martin Luther King’s speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream” and “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”1 Not only do these eighteen words fail to capture the significance of his address but they also belie the ultimate motivation behind the movement. As a dual call for desegregation and economic empowerment, referencing the event as simply the “March on Washington” has proven to be an injustice to history and to the intended legacy of the civil rights era.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a call for three types of justice -- economic, social and political. Although social equality was first on the agenda, it was not divorced from the other dimensions of liberty. Through hard experience, the organizers understood that true justice required a comprehensive approach. African-American labor leader A. Philip Randolph, who had famously forced Franklin Roosevelt to issue an executive order prohibiting job discrimination in defense hiring by threatening to conduct a peaceful march on the Capitol in 1941, was a progressive who sought to equalize employment access and lower income inequality. Two decades later, Randolph and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin crafted an ambitious agenda to promote “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all Americans. In the first draft of the organizing manual for the March, Rustin advocated large-scale federal programs to alleviate the chronic poverty and underemployment uncovered in the influential 1962 monograph The Other America by Michael Harrington. The second and final version of the manual stated their cause in the most direct terms:

We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis. That crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect and freedom.

At the same time. King was demonstrating similar thinking to Randolph and Rustin in his book Why We Can’t Wait. After participating in grueling civil rights campaigns in Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama and throughout the South, King witnessed indigence in the region first-hand and called for a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged “to attack the tenacious poverty which so paradoxically exists in the midst of plenty.” In a word, Randolph, Rustin and King all grasped the ultimate reality of racism. It was not simply social. It was structural.

The hardships suffered by many African Americans in the 1960s wholly justified the economic tack of the organizers. Blacks accounted for approximately 50 percent of those in poverty in Atlanta. In Chicago, they represented 43 percent of the unemployed despite comprising only 23 percent of the city’s population. Therefore, when a crowd of more than 200,000 began appearing around the Washington Monument to march to the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, many of them understandably carried signs reading “Full Employment,” “Jobs for All Now,” and “Voting Rights Now.” Those slogans matched the final slogan-equation agreed on by Randolph, Rustin and King for the gathering -- “Civil Rights, Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom.” It was a powerful and resonant message.

Over the last fifty years, Americans have forgotten half of the equation of freedom. As a result, our nation continues to endure the same economic deprivations. Of the 46.2 million citizens currently living below the poverty line, a disproportionately large number are black (28.1 percent). While the Great Recession negatively impacted virtually all of America, the median net worth of black households fell to $4,955 -- twenty-two times less than average white households ($110,729). In 2013, black unemployment exceeds the national average by nearly 6 percent (13.2 percent/7.5 percent), and black youth unemployment stands at approximately 40 percent -- a figure largely related to underinvestment in black urban areas.

One year before his assassination in 1968, King visited the small town of Waycross, Georgia and asked his audience, “And you know why we aren’t free?” He then answered his own question. “Because we are poor. Poverty is not having enough money to make ends meet. Poverty is being unemployed. Poverty is being underemployed. Poverty is working on a full-time job, getting only a part-time income.” In marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, we need to remember the full equation of the civil rights marchers and seek the change necessary to complete the American dream.


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