WASHINGTON—As the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington approaches, many public forums across the country are remembering Martin Luther King’s “Dream” that ended the speech, and the ways in which it has not been fulfilled today.
People tend to remember King’s eloquence in calling for social equality and civil rights. They ignore or forget that the 1963 March—when over 200,000 black and white participants came to the nation’s capital—was called, “March for Jobs and Freedom.”
The National Press Club on Aug. 21 held a forum, “Economic Inequality and the Working Poor,” sponsored by Good Jobs Nation, which represents low-wage workers employed to federal contractors. Civil rights and labor leaders from the King era and prominent media commentators discussed the status of King’s Dream today in the context of good jobs vanishing and growing economic inequality.
Joining the discussion in a separate panel were five people who told their stories of working at jobs that pay “poverty wages.”
“We shouldn’t forget 50 years ago, the March on Washington was about jobs as much as it was about freedom and equality,” said Joe Madison, radio host and activist.
American selective recall makes King the leader of the march, but actually a much older man, black labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, was the primary leader and initiator of the March, according to historian William Jones, author of “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.” He spoke on the PBS Newshour on August 14.
Randolph made 10 demands, said Madison, all economic. Other speakers that day spoke on the same economic justice theme. By the time King’s turn came as the final speaker, there was no need to repeat what was said earlier, and so the orator focused on a more optimistic message of hope and aspiration. However, King did mention poverty in his speech near the beginning:
“One hundred years later [after Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation], the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
Memphis Sanitation Workers
King was slain April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. where he had come to join the black sanitation workers’ strike. The workers were sick of derisively being referred to as ‘boys’ by their supervisors, said Moshe Marvit, labor and civil rights attorney. They had little respect. They couldn’t shower after work and so often buses wouldn’t pick them up and they would have to walk home, he said.
The strikers wore signs that said, “I am a Man.”
Marvit paid tribute to another speaker at the event, Alvin Turner, who was one of the Memphis sanitation workers on strike that King helped. Turner said that people were working eight hours a day, five days a week, and were on welfare. “That wasn’t right,” he said.
Jones said that we’ve forgotten that the demands of the March were not only about racial equality and legal equality, but “federal intervention in the economy to ensure that people have access to not just a job, but a well-paid job, to decent housing, to decent schools, and that these things were demands that were made on behalf, not just of African-Americans, but all Americans.”
Jones said that many of the leaders, including King, believed significant changes in the economic system were needed to reach the goal of racial equality with which we now associate the March.
Millions of low-wage workers today are struggling in the same ways as 50 years ago, according to the stories of several low-wage workers at the event. About 2 million low-wage employees work for contractors of the federal government.
Fred Turner works at the Smithsonian Institution for $9.90 per hour, without health care or retirement. He previously had a union job, paying $14.50 per hour, and after losing it, he had to take any job he could get.
Jonathan Ross works at the Smithsonian as well, the Museum of American History. A single father, he makes only $10,000 per year.
Robert Daye works at Union Station (in the District), a federal building, at Potbelly’s at 9.75/hr. without benefits. He wanted to be lawyer but can’t afford college.
Karla Quazada works at Subway in the Ronald Reagan building, a federal building at $9.75/hr. and no benefits. When she accidentally cut herself, she had to bear the full cost of the $1,200 injury. Her employer would not even pay for the two sick days off she needed for the injury.
Barbara Collins, single mother of two, was fired from Wal-Mart, which she said was illegal retaliation for speaking out. When she was employed, she said the wages were so low that she had to go to three food banks and finally turned to food stamps.
Larry Rubin, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist, said that the federal minimum wage in 1963 was $1.25. Adjusting for inflation, $1.25 would equate to $9.45 today. The minimum wage is $7.25, in other words, less in real dollars than it was fifty years ago. Rubin was present at the 1963 March.
‘Continue, Not Just Commemorate’ the March
Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal contracts and other federal money go to companies that provide low wages and few to no benefits, according to an Aug. 12 New York Times editorial. It stated that laws and executive actions ensured fair pay for employees of federal contractors, but that these have eroded over time by special contracts and exemptions.
Several panelists said the federal government’s tax dollars are contributing to the low-wage economy and furthering inequality. “The government employs more low-wage workers than any other company, including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s,” said Bill Lucy, civil rights and labor leader.
President Obama could raise two million low-wage employees of federal contractors out of poverty with the stroke of a pen by issuing an executive order requiring contractors pay a living wage, according to several speakers.
On Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, thousands will come to the Lincoln Memorial for the 50th anniversary of the March in 1963. Madison said it should be much more than a ceremony and he encourages the president to sign an executive order to raise two million federal workers out of poverty.
“We would be remiss if we reduced this to just simply a commemoration. We must understand that it is a continuation,” he said.