In August 1963, as was the case 100 years earlier when the cemetery for the heroes of Gettysburg was dedicated, many speeches were delivered but one stood out as a galvanizing moment to redefine and repurpose a movement. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered in November 1863, clearly defined the issue of the Civil War to be whether states’ rights could trample the rights of anyone.
Similarly, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech came to define the civil rights movement of a century later. It has come to be interpreted as a call for a color-blind society, instead of a call to end racial injustice.
His vision was more powerful than the sanguine “not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” interpretation that has seen right-wing conservatives quoting Dr. King’s speech to justify racial disparities, in the same way that tea party members embrace Lincoln’s “government of the people” to somehow mean no government at all.
The 1963 march was the “March for Jobs and Freedom.” Dr. King, who would become a strong champion for reforming America’s economic system so it worked to advance people, not crush them in poverty as sacrifices for progress, did not use the word “jobs” that day or make mention of the millions of Americans who were unemployed.
Dr. King’s body of work, his push to end poverty in America, is clearly part of his legacy. He stands as a drum major for justice, not just racial justice but economic justice. But his “I Have a Dream” speech was an articulation of how the civil rights movement was a fulfillment of the founding principles of America in line with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. It clearly argued that racial injustice was so incompatible with American ideals that it could not be defended.
But the march was a “March for Jobs and Freedom.” The march was the dream of A. Philip Randolph, who was the senior statesman of the major civil rights leaders. In 1963, Randolph was 74 years old, King was 34, and the only living major speaker of the day is U.S. Rep. John Lewis, then the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who was 23.
Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a union president and saw economic rights as inseparable from civil rights. And so it was Randolph who wanted the march to be a march for jobs.
As the leader of the march, Randolph opened the ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial and was the master of ceremonies for the day of speeches. His characterization of the march was “we are the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom.” While acknowledging racial injustice, he said, “We want all public accommodations open to all citizens but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them.”
And, most importantly, Randolph pointed out that equal opportunity to jobs means nothing if we have an economic system that is destroying jobs.
A simple yardstick would suggest that the civil rights changes since the march have exceeded what could have been imagined. In 1963, very few blacks were registered to vote, there were no black members of Congress from the South and few local elected officials. Since then, both Lewis and one of Dr. King’s lieutenants, Andrew Young, have served as members of Congress representing Atlanta and there are black members of Congress from every Southern state.
In 1963, mostly limited to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, only about four percent of the black population had college degrees; today, about 21 percent do and blacks attend every flagship public university in the South. But the “March for Jobs and Freedom” was launched when the black unemployment rate stood at 10.9 percent; today it stands at 12.6 percent.
The march did usher in many economic changes. The Civil Rights Act that passed the following year in 1964 made employment discrimination illegal, ending practices of major newspapers like The Washington Post posting help-wanted ads for “nurse (practical) white, for small nursing home.” This was followed by President Johnson issuing Executive Order 11246 requiring firms contracting with the federal government to take affirmative actions to ensure compliance with the Civil Rights Act in their hiring.
And, the call to raise the minimum wage was answered with an eventual boost to $1.60 an hour in 1968, the equivalent of $10.70 today, and the minimum wage’s highest value. The minimum wage coverage was extended to state and local government workers, boosting the earnings of black workers who gained entry to low-wage public-sector employment.
The result was that the median earnings of black men rose from below poverty for a family of three at $16,051 in 1963 to a peak of $23,135 in 1973, way above the poverty level. And the black unemployment rate fell to 6.4 percent in 1969. So, not surprisingly, the poverty rate for black children fell from 65.6 percent in 1965 to 39.6 percent in 1969. In 2010, 39 percent of Black children lived in poverty, the median income of black men stood at $23,475 in 2011 and today the unemployment rate for black men is at 12.5 percent.
Today, the challenge remains for civil rights to fight against the mass incarceration of black men, protect the Voting Rights Act from activist Supreme Court judges on the right and prevent vigilante acts coded into stand-your-ground laws that killed Trayvon Martin.
Thanks to the successes of the 1963 march, today’s young people were not asked to march in the middle of the week, as was the case in 1963. Afraid of a large gathering of “protesters,” the march organizers were forced to hold the march on a Wednesday to keep the crowd down, and to agree that the marchers would all leave Washington by sundown.
So, holding the march on a Saturday, and with the freedom to stretch the message longer than “sun-up to sundown,” this generation has overcome those barriers of the past.
Campaign for jobs
But let us also hope that this generation will see that they must again mount a campaign for jobs. If more than 250,000 Americans marched on Washington when the unemployment rate was 5.7 percent demanding full employment policies are at the center of economic policy, how will this generation respond? If more than 250,000 Americans marched on Washington demanding a rise in the minimum wage when its value was $9.54, how will this generation respond?
To encourage this generation, the AFL-CIO sponsored a scholarship competition to grant 60 scholarships to young people willing to commit themselves to recommit America to the demands of the 1963 “March for Jobs and Freedom.” Each of the students will receive a one-time $5,000 scholarship to help them afford college this fall.
Will our political leadership respond? Will it pass a new Civil Rights Act? Will it pass a Full Employment Act? Will it raise the minimum wage?
William Spriggs is chief economist with the AFL-CIO and is a professor in, and former chairman of, the Department of Economics at Howard University. He is also former assistant secretary in the Office of Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor. You may follow him on Twitter: @WSpriggs