As we approach the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington – Aug. 28 – Americans will recall Dr. King’s famous “dream;” many can recite entire passages of his historic address.
But it’s worth recalling the full meaning of that dream. The March on Washington was a march for justice. And the Civil Rights Movement transformed the country — gaining equal access to public accommodations, outlawing racial discrimination in employment, securing and protecting the right to vote with the Voting Rights Act.
But the 1963 March was titled “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Economic opportunity was at its center. As a key organizer of the march, A. Philip Randolph, president of the Negro American Labor Council, put it:
“We 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.”
But for jobs and economic opportunity, the March on Washington remains unfinished 50 years later. Nearly one-half of all African-American children live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Nearly three-fourths attend majority minority schools, often scarred by the “savage inequality” of public funding. African Americans are still two times more likely to be unemployed than whites. Affordable housing remains beyond reach. Adequate public transport to allow access to jobs has declined, not improved. And in our inner cities and barrios, clean water, sound sewage, healthy food and good parks grow rarer.
The 50th anniversary must revive the movement to address this unfinished agenda. Only now the stakes are even greater. A majority of babies born in the United States are now children of color. In three decades, more than half of our population will be people of color, according to U.S. Census projections. By 2050, Bureau of Labor Statistics projections estimate that 42 percent of our workforce will be African American and Hispanic (today that figure is 27 percent).
Diversity is our reality. We cannot afford to write off a majority of the next generation and still prosper as a great nation. We will educate and engage the children of all races or we will suffer continued decline.
We have made great progress since 1963. American apartheid in the South was outlawed. Overt racial discrimination is against the law. No longer must African Americans move to the back of the bus.
But the agenda of economic justice remains unfinished.
The demands of the marchers in 1963 resonate today: full employment, affordable housing, equal and excellent public education, a minimum wage the equivalent of $13 an hour in today’s terms. We argued in 1963 that removing the shackles from the impoverished African-American minority would lift the nation. Now the challenge is to provide opportunity to all children, including the children of color who are America’s future majority.
Dr. Martin Luther King taught us that “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In this time of extreme inequality, equal opportunity will not be bestowed by the privileged; it must be demanded by working and poor people. Working and poor people, across regions and religions and race, must come together to transform our national politics and priorities.
The 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom provides the opportunity to revive the full breadth of Dr. King’s dream and the full scope of the challenge to reach it.
Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition. You can keep up with his work at http://www.rainbowpush.org.