March on Washington: Then and Now

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    Fifty years ago, 250,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to call for justice and equality for all Americans. As the anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom approaches, we, participants in the march we helped to plan, are delighted that this remarkable moment will be commemorated.

    But we are troubled that the overarching significance of the march largely has been obscured, reduced to a sort of mental postcard. What’s too often forgotten is that the event created a climate that eventually led to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    Most people remember the 1963 march as the place where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, one of the greatest orations in American history. But no single moment can adequately convey the true meaning of the March, its goals, achievements and strategy.

    A. Philip Randolph, the father of the modern Civil Rights Movement, called for the March. As president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first majority Black union, Randolph recognized the need to press Washington to commit to national job creation and an end to employment discrimination.

    This view was shared by Bayard Rustin, a master strategist and chief organizer of the March. Together, they understood that while unemployment levels were especially high among Blacks, a march focused on job-related issues would appeal to all workers and their labor unions. Randolph and Rustin both believed that organized labor was the most able institution to lift the nation’s “have littles” and “have nots.”

    Leaders of the major civil rights organizations, including Dr. King, were invited to participate in the planning of the march, expanding the event’s mission to include the struggle for racial equality, and combining the issues of race and class for the first time in a major civil rights demonstration. The very scope and size of the eventual march confirmed the soundness of the Randolph-Rustin strategy. It produced a set of far-reaching demands, such as a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers in meaningful jobs; a national minimum wage that would provide a decent living for all workers, including domestic and agricultural workers; guarantees for high-quality, integrated public education; and unimpeded access to the ballot box – all of which still are desperately needed today.

    Many of the marchers – Black and White – were part of union delegations. And later, under the pressure of civil rights organizations and the AFL-CIO, the Civil Rights Act was strengthened to include Title VII, which barred employment discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion or national origin.

    Subsequent legislative acts achieved many of the goals of the march. Yet, half a century later, much remains to be done. For example, President Obama’s $800 billion economic stimulus package in 2009 helped to arrest a severe recession, but we still need a much larger public and private investment to ensure jobs are available for all who want them. Shamefully, the real value of the national minimum wage has fallen substantially since the 1970s. And this June, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority declared Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, meaning that minority voters—mostly in the Deep South—no longer can look to Justice Department oversight of any state and local authorities proposing changes that could suppress the voting rights of minorities. And, although some progress has been made, most Black students still attend segregated public schools.

    Nonetheless, the Randolph-Rustin strategy offers a guide to reviving major civil rights and employment initiatives. The march succeeded because it achieved the broadest possible, independent political coalition centered on Blacks and organized labor. Labor still wields enormous political and financial muscle, especially when coupled with empowered racial minorities, including the fast-growing Latino population, along with women, intellectuals of good conscience, middle-class liberals, gays and lesbians, and progressive members of the faith-based community.

    If we can build a comprehensive alliance along these lines, we can push back the rigid right wing and regain the initiative that showed so much promise in the 1960s. We must continue the civil rights fight for reforming immigration, protecting voting rights, ending racial profiling and lifting the nation out of its economic doldrums. To accomplish this, and more, we must draw on the best of the 1963 March on Washington—looking back to step forward.

    Norman Hill, former president A. Philip Randolph Institute.

    Norman Hill, former president A. Philip Randolph Institute.

    Like her husband, Velma Hill was a CORE organizer.

    Like her husband, Velma Hill was a CORE organizer.

    Norman and Velma Hill were organizers for the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Norman, a former AFL-CIO official, is former president of the  A. Philip Randolph Institute.

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