Today is the 49th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s brilliant “I Have a Dream” speech, the final speech of the 1963 March on Washington, which was officially titled the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” That event is obscured by the distance of a half-century, but it’s worth the effort to review the official demands of the march and the economic thinking of King and his allies, A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers. What they wanted for Americans then is still badly needed today—perhaps more than ever.
The March was about civil rights, voting rights and racial equality, but it was also about the need for jobs and for jobs that paid a decent wage. The marchers wanted the federal minimum wage raised nearly 75 percent, from $1.15 an hour to $2.00 an hour. They also called for “A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”
In 1963, the unemployment rate averaged about 5.0 percent, which looks good compared to today’s 8.3 percent, but King and the other organizers wanted full employment and believed it was the federal government’s responsibility to provide it. If that meant hiring 3 million people, so be it; every American had the right to decent paid work if he wanted it. The economy had to be structured in a way that left no one behind.
The march’s key civil rights demands were met in 1964 and 1965 with passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the economic demands were never met. The minimum wage was raised to $1.25 in Sept. 1963, but it didn’t reach $2.00 an hour until 1974, by which time inflation had shrunk its value back to 1963 levels.
Today, with the separation of the 1 percent from the rest of us, and the government’s shrinking commitment to the well-being of the less fortunate, the economic disparities in America are worse than they were in 1963. Despite the legislative achievements of the 1960s, African Americans still suffer in fact from segregated housing, segregated schools, and segregated employment opportunities, all of which on average are worse than the housing, education and job opportunities available to whites.
We need a better, higher minimum wage; we need full employment; and we need a national commitment to equal economic opportunity.