How We Forgot the “Jobs” Part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
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How We Forgot the “Jobs” Part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Jul 08, 2023

People participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963.

Photo: Getty Images

Today is the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It’s obviously most famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. And the best known part of that speech is King’s words expressing hope that his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

In a sense, it’s understandable that one of the greatest works of oratory in American history has overshadowed the rest of the day. Everyone remembers Abraham Lincoln’s 272-word address at Gettysburg. But we don’t talk much about the preceding speech that day by the politician Edward Everett, which was almost 14,000 words long. Honestly, that is too much freedom.

Nevertheless, it’s striking how much the “jobs” part of the March on Washington has dropped out of memory — because that was absolutely core to the message the marchers wanted the rest of the country to hear.

Start with the day’s program, which included a 10-point section called “What We Demand.” Number one is “comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation” that guarantees not just the right to vote, but also “decent housing.”

Number seven is “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”

Number eight is “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.)” At the time, the minimum wage was $1.15, or the equivalent today, adjusted for inflation, of $11.45. $2.00 an hour would now be about $20. The actual federal minimum wage today is $7.25

Even more succinctly, one of the most popular placards carried by marchers read, “Civil rights plus full employment equals freedom.”

King himself paired economics with civil rights. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation, he said, “The life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

John Lewis, who was then chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spoke before King. He began by saying:

All over this nation, the Black masses are on the march for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of. Hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars a day, 12 hours a day.

He went on to explain that while the march supported the Kennedy administration’s proposed civil rights bill, it was insufficient. “We need,” he stated, “a bill that will provide for the homeless and starving people of this nation.”

Right after Lewis came Walter Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers. In his speech, he referenced the low rates of unemployment during World War II and told the crowd:

If we can have full employment, and full production for the negative ends of war, then why can’t we have a job for every American in the pursuit of peace? And so our slogan has got to be fair employment, but fair employment within the framework of full employment, so that every American can have a job.

But the most powerful case was made by A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and one of the key organizers of the march. It’s well worth reading what he said, because Randolph addressed head on the most profound questions of American society:

We have no future in a society in which six 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 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?

The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality. It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property. It falls to us to demand new forms of social planning, to create full employment, and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits …

The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning, not only for the Negro, but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life. Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.

So once you understand the core purpose of the March on Washington, it’s clear that its dream remains, at best, half fulfilled. While segregation and discrimination still exist, they at least have been formally dismantled. But in economic terms, we have, if anything, gone backward. The federal minimum wage is less in real terms than it was in 1963. The idea of a federal jobs guarantee is barely even discussed. The chair of the Federal Reserve talks openly about the need to decrease the number of available jobs.

Four days after King was assassinated in 1968, his widow Coretta Scott King delivered a speech in which she said, “Now we are at a point where we must have economic power. … We are concerned about not only the Negro poor, but the poor all over America … Every man deserves a right to a job or an income so that he can pursue liberty, life, and happiness.”

If the marchers 60 years ago were correct, this agenda will have to be recovered if African Americans, and Americans in general, are going reach genuine freedom.

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