Still Marching for Jobs

At the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, its economic justice platform remains unmet.

By Imara Jones Aug 19, 2013

In less than a week, the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom will take place on the same site as it did in 1963. The event, coordinated by the National Action Network and The King Center in coalition with an array of organizations, will seek to commemorate and rekindle the original gathering’s aims.

Held in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, at the geographic center of a capital laid out with slave labor, the original 200,000-strong demonstration is famous for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s soaring address, in which he laid out a vision of social justice and racial equality. But one of the march’s original goals had a distinctly economic ring to it: fair jobs. Four out of the 10 demands march organizers listed were explicitly economic, and the announcement calling marchers to Washington cited "economic deprivation" as the impetus. Fifty years on, many of the same critical economic challenges the organizers targeted remain unmet.

In fact, the African American unemployment rate is higher now than in 1960: roughly 13 percent in 2013 vs. 8 percent in 1963. Moreover, as Robert Fairlie and William Sundstrom laid out in the The American Economic Review , the employment gap between blacks and whites widened in the 1960s and has never closed.

These data point to the fact that addressing racial inequality without a steady unwinding of economic injustice hardens and expands white supremacy. The link between racial and economic injustice was well known to the 1963 march’s organizers: A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

Randolph put together and led the first black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Rustin, who was gay, was a longstanding civil rights and economic justice organizer who charted the use of non-violence to advance these aims. Both had long seen how racism and economic injustice worked together to form a caste of color in which non-whites received less than they contributed.

Twenty years before the 1963 March on Washington, during World War II, Randolph and Rustin called for the first March on Washington, to specifically address economic disparities and discrimination in hiring. Their threatened march successfully pressured then-President Franklin Roosevelt to mandate equal opportunity for black workers in any wartime industry that received government contracts. At a stroke of a pen, this opened more than a third of the U.S. economy to African Americans and laid the groundwork for the black middle class.

Like Randolph and Rustin, King was also well aware of how racism and economic inequality hardened together and held Americans back. He’d arrived at the 1963 March on Washington fresh off an economic justice campaign in Birmingham, Ala. That effort not only took on social segregation, it opened jobs for black workers from which they had previously been barred.

Just five years later in 1968, King called for a Poor People’s Campaign in which the economically marginalized would gather in Washington anew, to push for specific policies promoting economic justice, namely full employment, decent housing for all and a living wage.

This is the work that remains undone. Blacks and Latinos face double digit unemployment rates, up to twice that of whites. In key urban areas, like New York City and Chicago, one out of two young men of color are out of work. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which the 1963 march organizers sought to broaden, continues to exclude a host of jobs filled disproportionately by people of color, like domestic workers.

Black and Latino wealth is now at the lowest level ever recorded. Moreover, the wealth gap between whites and people of color is larger than ever. Average white wealth is 20 times greater than that of African Americans, and 14 times greater than that of Latinos. And the financial crisis has sent black homeownership to its lowest level in almost 20 years.

The bottom line is that there remains a lot of economic justice work to do. The years since 1963 have shown clearly that America cannot afford to separate economic and racial justice. Without fair jobs, the long walk to freedom becomes much longer.