Demanding the dream of jobs and freedom, 50 years later

A quarter of a million people rallied “For Jobs and Freedom” at the Lincoln Monument in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963 — 100 years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Recognizing the unfulfilled promises facing African Americans, Martin Luther King Jr. wanted President John F. Kennedy to issue a second proclamation to open the way to full civil and voting rights. But he demanded more than that: King and organizers of the march could not separate civil rights from people’s economic needs. We should not do so today.

The march was the brainchild not of King but of A. Philip Randolph, the longtime Socialist Party organizer of the sleeping car porters union, and the dean of black labor and civil rights activism.

In 1941, Randolph had called for an all-black and labor-based march on Washington to protest the exclusion of African Americans from wartime jobs, prompting President Franklin Roosevelt to issue an executive order opening up defense industry jobs at places like Boeing aircraft on a nondiscriminatory basis.

The nation, though, continued to struggle with the racial and gender exclusion that locked millions of Americans into poverty.

At the 1963 march, Randolph renewed his demands. The chief organizer of the march, Bayard Rustin, a gay African American man whose peace and civil rights activism was closely tied to his socialism, had worked for 20 years on a parallel track to Randolph.

Black women community and union activists provided much of the backbone for organizing the march, which created a powerful civil rights-labor and inter-religious alliance. A similar alliance of unions and civil rights groups promises to make the 50th anniversary march highly significant.

On a hot August day in 1963, King challenged us to fulfill our country’s foundational creed, that all are created equal and should have an equal chance in life. After the march, he worked with Rustin and Randolph to demand a “Freedom Budget for All Americans.” It was a blueprint for the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, in which King called on government to shift its spending from warfare to programs investing in housing, health care, education and family-waged jobs to build a sustainable economy that would benefit everyone.

Fifty years since 1963, King’s goals are still unattained.

Yes, we have a black president and a somewhat expanded black middle class. But racism still infects our economic and educational systems. Prison remains a more common destination than the halls of higher education for young men of color. Violence, as the death of Trayvon Martin suggests, is an all-too-present reality. Various states are suppressing and gerrymandering the votes of poor people and minorities, with the Supreme Court as a willing accomplice.

In 1963, King decried the fact that most African Americans lived “on a lonely island of poverty” in the richest nation in the world. Today, the richest 1 percent of the population owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, and millions of people of all races and ethnicities are locked into poverty and unemployment.

King insisted that civil and voting rights only provided the first phase of the struggle for the American dream. True freedom for all required a second phase: King believed that everyone should have an equal opportunity to earn a decent living, access to good housing, education and a decent life, and he died fighting for union rights in Memphis.

Fifty years since we heard King sing out, “I have a dream today,” we need to remember the full range of issues raised by the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. King taught us to dream big. King said it is possible to end racism and bigotry, poverty and war, and to move toward a beloved community that respects the dignity and worth of every person. We need an inclusive coalition and an expansive agenda for jobs and freedom for all more than ever.

Stand up, America, for the dream — all of it!

Michael K. Honey is Fred and Dorothy Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma and author of “Going Down Jericho Road: the Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign.”