by William E. Forbath, Associate Dean for Research, Lloyd M. Bentsen Chair in Law, University of Texas at Austin School of Law. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Not only conservatives, but we liberals and progressives have forgotten much about the kinds of rights and the kinds of equality demanded by the March on Washington half a century ago today. Conservatives have fastened on the famous line in King’s “I Have a Dream” speech – that one day black children will “be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” – and tied the March and King’s “Dream” to their color-blind Constitution. But liberals and progressives also have fashioned a story-line that ties the March to a narrower vision than the one that actually animated the organizers and marchers that day. Our standard accounts tend to slight the links that the March forged between racial equality and economic justice. They say that the March focused on the right to vote and an end to segregation and discrimination in employment, education and public accommodations. In that way, they too suggest that the marchers’ main demands for legal change were met.
For conservatives, the March stood for color-blindness, which is already within our grasp, if all of us only shared the courage of the Chief Justice’s convictions about our over-reaching civil rights laws and doctrines. For liberals and progressives, the March stood for the advances in civil rights embodied in the great civil rights statutes of 1964 and ’65. So, for us, too, if only the venerable 1960s civil rights laws were enforced to the hilt, the “Dream” of 1963 would be within reach.
Our standard liberal accounts, in other words, depict the March as a great landmark in what we have come to depict as the hopeful “early” phase of the civil rights movement, demanding the kinds of laws that Congress soon would enact. Only later – in this familiar “early”/ “later” phase narrative of the civil rights movement – did the civil rights movement “go North” and confront for the first time the “intractable problems” of urban poverty and economic deprivation, on which the movement foundered. This is the narrative that informs such liberal classics as the great “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series; one finds it in most constitutional law casebooks; and it also shapes the contrasts President Obama has drawn between the “economic populism” of the New Deal, with its focus on jobs and economic justice, and the 1960s battle for civic equality and an end to Jim Crow, as the core of what the civil rights movement was about.
In fact, however, economic injustice, joblessness and exploitation were squarely on the March on Washington’s agenda back in 1963. If the March is a landmark of the “early” phase of civil rights movement history – its demands a key source for our accounts of the original, core meaning of the movement’s vision of rights and equality, then we must include economic enfranchisement in the original mix. The March’s demands were riveted on what its organizers called the “twin evils of racism and economic degradation.”