50 years later march unfinished

March Unfinished

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom. Millions of Americans know that speech well enough to paraphrase its concluding passages. But there were nine other speeches that day, calling not just for legal rights, but for jobs and a living wage.

On this 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it is critical to revisit this forgotten history of the march.

It is critical to revisit this forgotten history of the march.

Yes, the march galvanized the nation, and the civil rights struggle it heralded was among the most inspiring and effective social movements in American — if not world — history. Today, we can celebrate blacks’ equal access to public accommodations, a law against racial discrimination in employment, and black voting rights because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the hard economic goals of the march, critical to transforming the life opportunities of African Americans, were not fully achieved. The organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom also demanded decent housing, adequate and integrated education, a federal jobs program for full employment, and a national minimum wage of over $13 an hour in today’s dollars.

Key organizers understood

The key organizers of the march, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, understood that improving the socioeconomic position of African Americans required an end to both race- and class-based injustices in America. In his speech at the march, Randolph, president of the Negro American Labor Council, stated: INDENTWe have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white?end of indent

For Randolph and other marchers, expanding rights without significantly expanding economic opportunity would still leave African Americans economically disadvantaged.

4 key demands

Given that a societal commitment to four of the seven demands was not secured, the March for Jobs & Freedom is incomplete. Blacks in America today are:

  • Still in ghettos of poverty.

    The decent housing that marchers called for is still lacking. In 1963, Whitney Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, called for African Americans to “march from the rat-infested, over-crowded ghettos to decent, wholesome, unrestricted residential areas disbursed throughout our cities.” But today, nearly half of poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty; however, only a little more than a tenth of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods.

  • Still in segregated and unequal schools.

    Marchers demanded adequate and integrated education, but that has not been achieved. In 1963, Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, noted that in the nine years since the 1954 “Brown v. Board of Education” decision, “our parents and their children have been met with either a flat refusal or a token action in school desegregation.” In the late 1960s, 76.6% of black children attended majority black schools. In 2010, 74.1% of black children attended majority nonwhite schools. These segregated schools do not have the same resources as schools serving white children, violating the core American belief in equality of opportunity.

  • Still twice as likely to be unemployed.

    Jobs for all have not been created. In 1963, Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers of America, asserted, “We will not solve education or housing or public accommodations as long as millions of Americans, Negroes, are treated as second-class economic citizens and denied jobs.” From the 1960s to today, the black unemployment rate has been about 2 to 2.5 times the white unemployment rate. In 2012, the black unemployment rate was 14%, 2.1 times the white unemployment rate (6.6%) and higher than the average national unemployment rate of 13.1% during the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939.

  • Still struggling for a living wage.

    A minimum wage sufficient to lift working families out of poverty is not in place. In 1963, John Lewis, national chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, said, “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here — for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all.” After adjusting for inflation, the minimum wage today ($7.25) is worth $2 less than in 1968, and is nowhere close to a living wage. In 2011, a full-time year-round worker needed to earn $11.06 an hour to keep a family of four out of poverty. But more than a third of non-Hispanic black workers (36%) do not earn hourly wages high enough to lift a family of four out of poverty.

In this 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, we must recommit to the “unfinished march.” This includes constant vigilance to sustain the march’s clear, but still vulnerable, victories. But just as important as sustaining the civil rights goals achieved, we must confront the goals still unmet.

Editor's note: Algernon Austin directs the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity & the Economy (PREE), which works to advance policies that enable people of color to participate fully in the American economy and benefit equitably from gains in prosperity.

This article is excerpted from “The Unfinished March: An Overview,” the first in a series of reports from the Economic Policy Institute outlining the steps needed to fully achieve each of the goals of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom. Visit www.unfinishedmarch.com for updates and to join the Unfinished March.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) is a non-profit, non-partisan think tank created in 1986 to broaden discussions about economic policy to include the needs of low- and middle-income workers. EPI believes every working person deserves a good job with fair pay, affordable health care, and retirement security. To achieve this goal, EPI conducts research and analysis on the economic status of working America. EPI proposes public policies that protect and improve the economic conditions of low- and middle-income workers and assesses policies with respect to how they affect those workers.

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