August 28 will mark the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Publicly associated with Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, this march brought more than 250,000 people to the nation’s capital to demand freedom and jobs. Initiated by Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters President A. Philip Randolph, the effort became a joint project with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the day went down in history as a powerful show of force against Jim Crow segregation.
It is barely remembered that the March on Washington was for freedom and jobs. The demand for jobs was not a throwaway line in order to get trade union support, but instead reflected the growing economic crisis affecting black workers. It is also barely remembered that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee played a key role in the event, but the civil rights leadership insisted that the militant rhetoric of the original speech by SNCC’s then chairman John Lewis (now Congressman John Lewis) be toned down.
Over time this great event has risen to levels of near mythology. The powerful speech by Dr. King, replayed in part for us every Martin Luther King Day, has eclipsed all else, so much so that too many people believe that the March on Washington was entirely the work of Dr. King, when in fact he was a major player in a project that was much larger than any one person.
As August 2013 approaches, there has been very limited public discussion regarding an anniversary march to commemorate the 1963 event. What has apparently been taking place are a series of closed-door discussions regarding some sort of celebratory action. Particularly disturbing are the suggestions that any one person, organization, or family can claim the legacy of the March on Washington. But should any one constituency claim that legacy, it is a group that does not appear to be at the table: black labor.
Randolph and other black labor leaders, particularly those grouped around the Negro American Labor Council, were responding to the fact that the black worker was largely being ignored in the discussions about civil rights. Additionally, the economic situation, as referenced earlier, was becoming complicated terrain for black workers. As historian Nancy MacLean has pointed out, the elements of what came to be known as deindustrialization (which was really part of a reorganization of global capitalism) were beginning to have an effect in the U.S., even in 1963. As with most other disasters, it started with a particular and stark impact on black America.
In 2013, black workers have been largely abandoned in most discussions about race and civil rights. As National Black Worker Center Project founder Dr. Steven Pitts has repeatedly pointed out, with the economic restructuring that has destroyed key centers of the black working class, such as Detroit and St. Louis, much of the economic development that has emerged has either avoided the black worker altogether or limited the role of black workers to the most menial positions. Thus, unemployment for blacks remains more than double that of whites and hovers around Depression levels in many communities.
In that sense, August 2013 must not be a reunion tour of old civil rights leaders — with all due respect — reminiscing about a bygone era, but rather it should be a militant mass protest of the way both race and class are playing themselves out in today’s America. August 2013 cannot be held hostage to discussions that focus solely on the memory of Dr. King amid a debate about who has the right to claim that memory; we must recognize the breadth of the movement that brought about the 1963 March on Washington.
Yet more importantly, August 2013 must be about today and the issues that are affecting the dispossessed, including but not limited to black America. It must be a moment to highlight the struggles that the bottom 90 percent of the population is engaged in fighting. It must be a moment to reissue the call for jobs and freedom, bringing those demands into the 21st century by emphasizing issues that include voting rights, genuine economic development, peace, and nothing less than planetary survival.
In 1983, I participated in the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington. Although it attempted to raise the issues of the day, such as the threat of Reaganomics, it was clear that the canonization of Dr. King was a central feature of the day for too many of the marchers. One of the worst ways to remember Dr. King, and for that matter the 1963 March on Washington, is by canonizing a particular individual. It would be far better to use the inspiration from that great day in 1963 as the energizing force for a renewed round of struggles.
Bill Fletcher Jr is the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided; the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions; a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies; and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.