August 2013 represents the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. Publicly associated with Dr. King’s famous “I have a Dream” speech, this march brought more than 250,000 people to Washington, D.C. to demand freedom and jobs. Initiated by Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters President A. Philip Randolph, this became a joint project with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and went down in history as a powerful show of force against Jim Crow segregation.
It is barely remembered that the March was for freedom and jobs. The demand for jobs was not a throwaway line in order to get trade union support but instead reflected the growing economic crisis affecting the Black worker.
Over time this great march has risen to levels of near mythology. The powerful speech by Dr. King, replayed—in part—for us every King Day has eclipsed all else, so much so that too many people believe—incorrectly—that the March was King’s march rather than that he was a major player in a project that was much larger than himself.
As August 2013 approaches, it has been noticeable that there has been very limited public discussion regarding an anniversary march to commemorate the 1963 event. What has, apparently, been taking place are a series of closed door discussions regarding some sort of celebratory action. What has been particularly disturbing are the suggestions that any one person, organization, or family can claim the legacy of the March. But, should any one constituency claim that legacy it is a group that does not appear to be at the table: Black labor.
Randolph and other Black labor leaders, particularly those grouped around the Negro American Labor Council, responded to the fact that the Black worker was largely being ignored in the discussions about civil rights. Additionally, the economic situation was becoming complicated terrain for Black workers. As writer Nancy Maclean has pointed out, the elements of what came to be known as “de-industrialization” (which was really part of a reorganization of global capitalism) were beginning to have its effect in the U.S.A., even by 1963. As with most other disasters, it started with a particular and stark impact on Black America.
In 2013 the Black worker has been largely abandoned in most discussions about race, civil rights, etc. As National Black Worker Center Project founder Steven Pitts has repeatedly pointed out, with the economic restructuring that has destroyed key centers of the Black working class strength, much of the economic development that has emerged has either avoided the Black worker altogether or limited the role of the Black worker to the most menial of positions. Thus, unemployment for Black workers remains more than double that of Whites and hovers around Depression levels in many communities.
In 1983, I participated in the 20th anniversary March on Washington. Although it attempted to raise the issues of the day, e.g., the threat of Reaganomics, what could also be seen was the canonization of Dr. King as a central feature for too many of the marchers. One of the worst ways to remember Dr. King, and for that matter the 1963 March, is by canonizing any individual. One of the best ways to remember Dr. King and the March is to use the inspiration from that great day in August 1963 as the energizing force for another round of struggle.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.