Commentary | Inequality and Poverty

The 1963 March on Washington’s Strategy for Defeating Poverty

This August will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a seminal moment for the civil rights movement. It was at this march that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech, a speech so eloquent in its appeals for freedom, justice, and equality that it has also obscured in our nation’s memory some of the march’s other powerful messages. Today, as some cite the election of the nation’s first black president as the culmination of King’s dream, it is useful to take the opportunity to study the March for Jobs and Freedom in order to better understand what the movement was about and what goals remain unmet.

In canonizing King’s message of freedom, we have neglected other important messages – particularly those around jobs and wages – delivered that day. In fact, two of the formal demands of the march were for a federal jobs program that would provide training and jobs for all unemployed workers and a decent national minimum wage. A. Philip Randolph, then president of the Negro American Labor Council and one of the chief organizers of the march, stated in his speech that historic day, “We have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty.” For Randolph and other civil rights leaders, it was essential to build a society which could provide low unemployment and decent wages for all Americans. Their understanding of the challenge blacks faced was not only racial but also economic.

The need for training and jobs for the unemployed was central to the civil rights movement. Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, stated plainly at the march, “We want employment, and with it, we want the pride, and responsibility, and self-respect that goes with equal access to jobs.” Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, urged blacks to “march from the relief roles to the established re-training centers, from under employment as unskilled workers to higher occupations commensurate with our skills.” Walter Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers of America, proposed that “our slogan has got to be, ‘Fair employment, but fair employment within the framework of full employment, so that every American can have a job.’”

Though the movement has seen civil and legal successes, unemployment continues to be a critical issue in black communities to this day. Currently, blacks in America are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites, with about 2.5 million looking for but unable to find work. At the time of the March for Jobs and Freedom, the black unemployment rate was 2.2 times higher than the rate of white unemployment. Over the last five decades that ratio has changed little: black unemployment rates have remained between 2 and 2.5 times white unemployment rates. The civil rights leaders of the 1960s would not look at America today and declare that we have reached the Promised Land.

In addition to addressing unemployment, speakers at the march focused strongly on the need for decent wages. The clearest policy statement came from Mathew Ahmann, executive director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice. Ahmann stated, “We dedicate ourselves today to securing a minimum wage which will guarantee economic sufficiency to all American workers.” Current Member of Congress John Lewis, then the national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, chided the crowd, “We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here—for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all.”

These words are all too relevant 50 years later. Both Ahmann and Lewis were restating one of the formal demands of the March for Jobs and Freedom: a minimum, living wage of $2.00 an hour, equal to over $13.00 an hour today. With the current national minimum wage set at just $7.25, we arguably have fallen farther behind in our path to achieving living wages for all workers.

The March on Washington’s plan to address unemployment and poverty was simple and powerful: jobs for all at a decent wage. If we are ever able to provide a job and a decent wage to everyone who wants one, the problem of poverty for whites, Latinos, blacks, and nearly all other groups would be largely eliminated.

This commentary originally appeared in Spotlight on Poverty.

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