Civil Rights March: The One Part Of It That No One Remembers

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Martin Luther King would have been dismayed by the graph above, showing that 15% of all Americans live below the poverty line. But it seems that because most Americans have only listened to the last five minutes of Dr. King’s 15-minute “I Have A Dream” speech, we have missed the fact that the March on Washington was formally titled the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” To be sure, the "freedom" aspect of the march was captured in the rhythmic “I have a dream” cadence, but the "jobs" aspect of the march requires a full listening not only of Dr. King’s speech, but of Bayard Rustin’s recitation of the demands that the march leaders took to President John F. Kennedy immediately after the march concluded. March on Washington demands 7 through 10 were as follows:

7. A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers, Negro and white, on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.

8. A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.)

9. A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.

10. A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state, and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.

As we reflect on and commemorate the 1963 March on Washington, I have only one request: that we actually accomplish the goals of the original March on Washington. If we truly want to commemorate and honor the legacy of that movement, we should be pushing for a living wage bill, for federal employment of the unemployed to rebuild broken infrastructure, and an employment non-discrimination act that protects all Americans, including LGBT Americans. These demands are not new, but we have failed to see them become reality because, as Dr. King stated himself (see the video below), “it costs.”

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The work that lay ahead of those participating in the 1963 March on Washington still lies ahead of us. When President Obama steps to the microphone Wednesday, it is not likely that he will be rolling out the next "Great Society" program or "War on Poverty." This brings me to a brief quarrel I have with the 50th Anniversary organizers and President Obama's symbolic positioning in the place of Dr. King.

When Dr. King finished his speech, the leaders of the march went to the White House to meet with President Kennedy to make their demands. But after President Obama concludes his speech, who exactly is he supposed to carry the demands from the march to? The short answer is himself — and that represents one of the problems of this year's march. As long as the black community continues to treat President Obama as the actualization of Dr. King's dream, Dr. King's dream will continue to get small enough for Obama to represent, rather than President Obama being challenged to become big enough to press towards the dream.

My quarrel aside, the United States has yet to make a serious legislative effort at reducing poverty and the cycle of poverty in nearly 50 years, and that is the true tragedy of this 50-year celebration of the March on Washington.