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The March on Washington Advanced a Radical Vision for Society That Remains Unfulfilled

Sixty years ago today, hundreds of thousands gathered at the Washington Mall, where they heard Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Since then, we’ve beaten a retreat from the march’s vision of racial and economic justice.

Demonstrators at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963. ,(Rowland Scherman / National Archives at College Park via Wikimedia Commons)

By noon on August 28, 1963, the Washington Mall was a sea of people, dabbing sweat from their brows and bobbing picket signs in the air. The official police report counted 250,000, but those who were there said it had to be at least 400,000.

Sign reading “We Demand Voting Rights Now!” and “We March for Integrated Schools Now!” reflected the demands of a civil rights movement that had grown in confidence and had reached a truly explosive character. There was also a strong economic component, reflected in slogans like “Civil Rights Plus Full Employment Equals Freedom,” “We Demand an FEPC Law Now!,” and “We Demand Decent Housing Now!” Many in the crowd were there representing their labor unions, like the United Auto Workers (UAW) and Industrial Union of Electrical Workers.

While it was hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who made the event so significant, many celebrities were featured in the day’s programming or could be spotted in the crowds. Musicians Mahalia Jackson, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan serenaded the audience; stars like Harry Belafonte and Josephine Baker gave speeches; and Jackie Robinson, Sammy Davis Jr, Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando could be seen hobnobbing.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place sixty years ago today. It is justifiably recognized as one of the most successful protest events in US history, a cultural touchstone that continues to penetrate our consciousness. As the years pass on, it has even been portrayed as a model of acceptable mainstream dissent. No US president, Democrat or Republican, would dare cast the March on Washington in a negative light or fail to praise Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The march is also presented as an end point, a kind of “mission accomplished” for the civil rights movement. Black people held a big march, bills were passed, equality reigned supreme, and America held true to its ideals. While the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom certainly should be praised and credited with playing a role in challenging inequality, these narratives elide its fundamental goals and the truly radical potential to build a different America that it represented.

The march served as a pivot point taking the civil rights movement beyond the stage of racial equality before the law. It set forth an agenda that challenged capitalism at its roots and sought to remake the country along the lines of democratic socialism. The sixty years since the march have seen a retreat from this vision, which places racial inequality in the context of the broader political economy. The result has been a precipitous decline in the living conditions for the majority of black working people, and an accelerated class divide between them and their middle- and upper-class counterparts.

The radical demands of the March on Washington have still not been fulfilled. Recovering the true legacy of the march and its aftermath can help us establish the root causes of racial inequality today and what to do about it.

Freedom, But How to Pay For It?

The idea for a massive demonstration in the nation’s capital had lived in the minds of civil rights activists ever since A. Philip Randolph’s audacious March on Washington Movement of the early 1940s. Threatening to march tens of thousands of black people at the White House to end discrimination in defense-industry employment, the movement forced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 8802, establishing the Fair Employment Practice Committee. Such a direct, militant mobilization of working-class blacks was rare and struck fear in the heart of the ruling class.

Randolph called off the march after extracting the concession from Roosevelt. This move left some younger militant activists disappointed, however. Chief among them was Bayard Rustin, who at the time was a young pacifist who got swept up in Randolph’s initiative. Eventually the two would mend fences and become extremely close political associates.

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Over twenty years later, at Randolph’s Harlem office in December 1962, the two revived their grand vision for a march. After getting Randolph’s blessing, Rustin began working with old assistants Tom Kahn and Norman Hill to craft the overall framing for the event. At first, Rustin conceived of a march that put economic demands front and center, with only little reference to civil rights.

In a first draft of the program, Rustin declared, “The one hundred years since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation have witnessed no fundamental government action to terminate the economic subordination of the American Negro.” The most glaring issue in his mind was not race relations per se but “the unresolved crisis of the national economy.” He also envisioned it as a two-day event; one day for intense congressional lobbying and one day for a mass rally.

Constructing the coalition that would carry out the event was slow-going and difficult work. Rustin and Randolph wanted a united front of civil rights organizations, and by the end of March 1963 the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) endorsed the march. But Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were lukewarm about the idea, not coming on board until late May. The National Urban League initially declined to support for fear of jeopardizing relationships with members of Congress, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) still had not endorsed by the time the march was officially announced.

As great an organizer as Rustin was, it was events in the broader movement that generated the needed momentum and interest. Throughout the spring of 1963 the SCLC had been waging an assault on segregated businesses in Birmingham, Alabama with marches and civil disobedience. At first, the infamous Birmingham police chief Theophilus “Bull” Connor held his troops in check and largely refrained from excessive brutality. Activists struggled to garner sufficient interest from the media and federal government.

However, the SCLC’s fateful decision in early May to let children participate in the struggle completely changed the dynamic. Connor and the Birmingham Police Department let loose and plastered television screens with the unforgettable images of German shepherds biting children and water hoses drowning peaceful protesters. Over 2,500 demonstrators were arrested and detained within just one week. All of a sudden, the John F. Kennedy administration had a national crisis on its hands.

In June, over one thousand leaders were convened in Washington, DC, and they called on Congress for civil rights legislation. Now, a big march in August had momentum and was tied to real political stakes. Rustin and other planners began to incorporate the “freedom” and civil rights elements more into the march’s program. King and the SCLC bought in and became more excited. Rustin later acknowledged, “The events in Birmingham were more important for organizing [the March on Washington] than . . . me or anything else.”

Hitherto skeptical organizations such as the NAACP and National Urban League jumped on the bandwagon. The NAACP in particular had a robust organizational infrastructure and worked hard to turn its members out. Though President Kennedy tried to put a stop to the march for fear of violence, there was no derailing the train now.

Although the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) did not formally endorse the event, labor unions were critical for its success. Black trade unionists who cut their teeth in the early days of the CIO, like Cleveland Robinson from the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union and Addie Wyatt from the United Packinghouse Workers of America, organized large delegations from their unions to attend. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the UAW coughed up $20,000 for the event’s sound system. Other supporting unions included the United Steelworkers and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

The march itself, in both its participants and program, was a living embodiment of the broad social democratic coalition that civil rights leaders like Randolph and Rustin believed would be necessary for the future. The demands blended the needs of the ascendant civil rights movement with long-standing goals of the labor movement.

The civil rights demands were comprehensive, asserting the right of all Americans to housing, education, voting, and public accommodation on a nonsegregated and nondiscriminatory basis.

Some of the economic demands were quite radical in their implications. The call for a “A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages” directly challenged the bipartisan commonsense assumption that full employment would inevitably lead to unacceptable inflation. The march also demanded national minimum-wage legislation, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Act, and a broadening of the Fair Labor Standards Act to include previously excluded sectors.

As the March on Washington became lionized in mainstream narratives of US history, it has become fashionable among some on the Left to dismiss the event as too moderate. However, the programmatic demands in fact represented a complete redistribution of wealth and political power that the country had never seen before.

Others have also charged that the march achieved no meaningful political victories. Kwame Ture, in his autobiography Ready for Revolution, asserted, “In cold political terms, the march changed nothing.” The passage of two major pieces of legislation soon after the march, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, make this view hard to maintain. While of course this legislation was the product of a mass movement that was active over a long period of time, it is clear that the March on Washington was a dramatic demonstration of a majority coalition in support of these aims that the ruling class could no longer ignore.

However, movement leaders did not disagree that civil rights legislation still left the major issues affecting black people, especially in northern cities, virtually untouched. In one sense, the March on Washington could be seen as a transition point toward addressing broader economic issues after formal civil rights were granted.

Both Randolph and Rustin were quick to recognize that the movement had entered a new era full of complexities and potential pitfalls. In January 1965, the Negro American Labor Council held a “State of the Race Summit” to chart a new course forward for civil rights activists. Here, Randolph gave his “Crisis of Victory” speech that outlined some of the problems ahead.

He observed a “psychological and social gap” between the smaller stratum of black people who would benefit from the education and employment opportunities unleashed by the Civil Rights Act and the “black masses.” Accordingly, the task now was to build a “national consensus” around the issues of affordable housing, full employment, quality education, and economic security. This can only be done through a broad multiracial coalition, he explained: “Negroes must move ahead with their fellow white poor and citizens of good will or history will again pass us by.”

Rustin put forth similar ideas around the same time in his seminal essay “From Protest to Politics.” Here he was brutally honest about how little the civil rights movement had addressed and the shifting terrain of the struggle. The fact that more black people were unemployed and attending segregated schools in 1965 than they were in 1954 was due to the fact that these issues were closely tied to economic dynamics. For Rustin, it was revealing that the civil rights demands from the March on Washington were mostly fulfilled (at least legally), while the major economic demands largely were not.

Addressing the growing urban riots in the North, Rustin characterized these as “outbursts of class aggression in a society where class and color definitions are converging disastrously.” Perceptively, he framed the urban riots as a product of economic dislocation caused by automation: “Whatever the pace of this technological revolution may be, the direction is clear: the lower rungs of the economic ladder are being lopped off.” Black workers, who were disproportionately located in unskilled or semiskilled positions, would be the hardest hit by these changes.

Manufacturing jobs as a total share of nonfarm employment hit its peak in 1953, and at the same time, mechanization dramatically reduced rural agricultural employment. In effect, working-class blacks continued to stream into northern cities just as manufacturing jobs were disappearing due to automation, offshoring, and relocation to the suburbs.

Programmatically, sit-ins at lunch counters and similar kinds of demonstrations no longer fit as tactics for this new period. Instead, Rustin proposed a switch toward a political focus aimed at unleashing federal funds for sweeping social democratic programs in the realm of jobs, health care, housing and education. Such a shift would inevitably involve the maintenance and expansion of the broad multiracial coalition that had been on full display during the March on Washington.

Using the newly formed A. Philip Randolph Institute (funded by the AFL-CIO) as an organizational anchor, these ideas coalesced into the 1966 Freedom Budget for All Americans. It was a comprehensive program of full employment, universal housing, raising the minimum wage, national health care, and upgrading Social Security. The plan represented nothing less than a radical transformation of the United States into a democratic socialist country.

While some have interpreted “From Protest to Politics” as Rustin’s descent into moderate humdrum electoralism, his organizing approach to the Freedom Budget throws this view into doubt. Over six hundred endorsements were secured, including from the NAACP, SCLC, Urban League, and most major labor unions. Organizers toured the country drumming up support and facilitating workshops, and Rustin drew up plans for a substantial congressional grassroots pressure campaign involving youth groups.

The Freedom Budget framework was in direct contrast to the approach sought by the Lyndon Johnson administration through the War on Poverty. Drawing on the theories of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, War on Poverty programs started from the premise that people were poor due to lack of motivation or other personal deficiencies. These pathologies were thought to be especially dire among the urban black poor. Missing in all this was the fact that these programs were trying to prepare people for jobs that increasingly no longer existed.

Rustin was ruthless in his criticisms of the War on Poverty, stating that the numerous community-action programs suffered from the “delusions that the poor can be helped to organize themselves out of poverty.” Commenting on the misguided emphasis on motivation, Rustin declared in “From Protest to Poltics,” “When Negro youth can reasonably foresee a future free of slums, when the prospect of gainful employment is realistic, we will see motivation and self-help in abundant enough qualities.”

This critique was shared by many black trade unionists with a social democratic outlook. Ernest Calloway, the visionary education director of Teamsters Local 688 in St Louis, said in one his essays that the War on Poverty “diverted from the ferment of social change,” and that its main aim was to “contain the ‘poor’ . . . without disturbing traditional economic and political balances in the urban complex.”

The War on Poverty did, however, facilitate the rise of a new stratum of black political leaders and administrators. Through programs like Legal Services, Job Corps, and the Community Action Program, these black politicos oversaw the disbursement of targeted and limited federal aid to urban areas. In the process, new black political actors were given access to the resources and technical know-how of local public administration.

But unlike the more expansive reforms of the New Deal era, War on Poverty programs did not fundamentally alter the relationship most working-class black people had with the economy. Eventually, this same stratum of black elites would oversee the steady retreat from the social democratic tendency in black politics.

Cracks in the Coalition

The Freedom Budget effort could not withstand the fraying of the New Deal/civil rights coalition. As the years of the Johnson administration wore on, it was clear that the Vietnam War had sucked up the bulk of the energy and financial resources. Irreconcilable divisions arose within the civil rights movement as well.

Spurred by frustrations with the limits and slow pace of antidiscrimination laws, “Black Power” emerged in 1966 as the guiding slogan of a new generation of self-described black radicals. While the term was emotionally powerful, its ambiguity left it open to different and often contradictory interpretations. In his essay “From Black Power to Black Establishment,” scholar Adolph Reed Jr observes that Black Power “was always a concept in search of its object.”

Black ethnic electoral machines, “community control,” black entrepreneurship, and armed revolution were all presented as representing black power by various political actors. The first black power conferences that attempted to flesh out its meaning often produced a both contradictory and limited set of policy ideas. The 1967 Black Power conference in Newark put forth a fairly moderate agenda that included the establishment of neighborhood credit unions, “buy black” campaigns, the creation of black nonprofits, and cooperative enterprises.

The first wave of urban black elected officials in the late 1960s and early 1970s were often well meaning and had left-leaning inclinations, but took power just as structural economic factors in cities took a turn for the worse and made carrying out a progressive economic agenda at the local level almost impossible.

Cedric Johnson, in his new book After Black Lives Matter, says of this cohort of black elected officials:

We should recall their predicament as urban managers with a mix of scrutiny and a sense of nuance and tragedy, because governing through the compounded fiscal and social crises of the seventies and eighties meant making difficult choices with unforeseen and often regrettable consequences.

This tension between local control and national economic factors emerged publicly at the 1972 Gary Convention, which brought together an incredibly broad range of black activists and elected officials. NAACP president Roy Wilkins expressed concern that the strategy of local black political control “would fetter black America forever into the poorest and least influential sectors of national life.”

Richard Hatcher, the first black mayor of Gary, Indiana, noted that the largest share of resources remained in the hands of multinational corporations and federal agencies. These objections reflected the national economic outlook present during the March on Washington.

Calls for black political control were also fairly easy to accommodate without larger structural changes, as was seen in how a cohort of black politicians cut their teeth administering War on Poverty programs. In Revolutionaries to Race Leaders, Johnson points out, “Insurgent demands for black indigenous control converged with liberal reform initiatives to produce a moderate black political regime and incorporate radical dissent into conventional political channels.”

Increasingly, the focus of racial politics for black political elites became (and still remains) affirmative action policies that disproportionately favor upwardly mobile minorities, high-status job appointments, and minority business development. While in their own way these policies attack forms of racial discrimination, they are disconnected from the issues affecting the majority of black people.

The State of Black America

Currently, discussions of black poverty draw on psychology more than political economy, and often reflect the same ideas of black cultural deficiency and need for uplift as the War on Poverty. As just one example, Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative focused almost exclusively on mentoring for black youth. But again, no amount of role models can overcome the lack of good jobs and a shrinking social safety net.

The current framework of anti-racism focuses more on individual atonement and interpersonal relations instead of broader political economy. According to Ibram X. Kendi, perhaps the most acclaimed theorists of anti-racism today, “The heartbeat of racism is denial, the heartbeat of antiracism is confession.”

This framework has proved completely incapable in addressing the horrific conditions so many black working people face today. Sixty years after the March on Washington, black Americans face racial inequalities and disparities in every measure of social welfare one could think of.

Despite media narratives that focus almost exclusively on the “white working class,” deindustrialization and the destruction of private sector unions have been most devastating for black workers. The auto industry, for example, was the second-largest employer of black semiskilled production workers by the mid-1960s, surpassing one hundred thousand in 1966. Represented by the UAW, these jobs offered high wages, job security, and strong benefits.

By 2009, after decades of offshoring and attacks on unions, black workers had under sixty thousand jobs in the auto industry. In manufacturing overall, the percentage of black workers has plummeted from 23 percent in 1979 to just 10 percent in 2007. It is in this context of economic precarity that issues of police brutality and mass incarceration have accelerated.

There were high hopes for the first black president, but the Obama years were a period of continued decline for most black Americans. In particular, black wealth was eviscerated by the totally inadequate response to the housing crisis. Research from the People’s Policy Project showed that black families especially were steered into subprime mortgages, and after the crisis their negative equity increased massively from 0.7 percent to 14.2 percent.

The public sector has remained a bastion of secure, unionized employment for many black workers. Twenty percent of black workers are employed in the public sector, and these workers make almost 25 percent more in wages than their counterparts in the private sector. But these jobs, and the public services that black communities disproportionately rely on, are in jeopardy as the bipartisan neoliberal onslaught of austerity continues.

The failure of neoliberal Democrats to address these compounding crises has led to some troubling trends in black voting patterns. As historian Matt Karp observes, congressional Democratic margins among black working-class voters have dropped by eleven points overall. Though the movement is still small, the Republican Party is gaining ground with less educated African-American voters.

Which Way Forward?

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a brief moment where black politics was part of a broader movement for economic transformation, looms over us in this period of multiple crises facing black America (and the entire working class, for that matter). It should serve as a reminder of the possibility of a politics that is coalitional yet radical as we chart a way forward.

There are many encouraging signs that today a large segment of black Americans support the kind of social democratic politics that molded the March on Washington. Despite a constant media drumbeat claiming the contrary, in 2020 black voters overall heavily supported the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Among black voters under age thirty-five he led the pack of Democratic primary candidates. This fact is consistent with black voters’ long-held support of broadly redistributive economic policies.

Black workers are the most likely among any ethnic group to be union members, a trend that began as far back as the 1940s. Rebuilding the labor movement will be crucial for fighting racial inequality, as a plethora of studies have shown.

Despite a lot of discourse on the black/white wealth gap and wage gap, somehow unions are usually left out of the discussion of solutions to this persistent problem. According to the Economic Policy Institute, among nonunion families the median white family has more than $7 in wealth for every $1 held by the median black family. Among union families, this ratio is only half as large.

Fortunately, we are in the midst of an uptick of labor militancy and pro-union sentiments among the broader public. While we don’t know yet how far this all will go, the Teamsters’ contract fight at UPS and the upcoming showdown between the UAW and the Big Three have big implications for scores of blue-collar black workers.

Our conceptions of fighting racial inequality today have to include broader issues such as defending and expanding the public sector, building a thriving labor movement, universal social programs, and a bold national-level jobs program. This approach can put us on the path to fulfilling the full mission of the March on Washington. Only then can the dream of both jobs and freedom become a reality.

Paul Prescod is a Jacobin contributing editor.