Economic Justice to the Fore

August 29, 2013
Guest Post

by Erik Lampmann, Senior Fellow for Equal Justice, the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom August 28th, 1963 shook the foundations of racist American society.
For one, the mobilization of almost 250,000 individuals on the National Mall threatened entrenched white interests. It forced the Kennedy administration to take meetings with Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders which eventually led to a strong(er) federal civil rights bill in 1964.

In many ways, the March punctuated the Civil Rights Movement.
Coming two months after the assassination of NAACP Field Secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi and one month after a church bombing which led to the death of four young black girls in Birmingham, the convening power of the March was able to unify the voices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), and the Negro American Labor Council under one banner.

In the face of mainstream media debates on the merits of the March, its aims, and its successes, it’s important to remember the first march 50 years ago was originally conceived as an economic justice mobilization. It’s entirely accurate to argue that the March was situated within the Civil Rights Movement writ-large. That said, it’s perhaps more accurate to focus on the March’s unparalleled critique of economic inequality.

From the beginning, the March challenged majority interests by calling for dignity in hiring practices and socio-economic stability. It saw the Civil Rights Movement through the lens of achieving the self-determination of communities of color beyond a single issue like voters’ rights. Only by challenging the (in)equality of outcomes did they think there was potential for transformational change in the daily lives of communities of color.

The demands of the March testified to that legacy, including a living minimum wage, full employment, labor protections, and an end to discrimination in the workplace. They articulated a holistic vision of an America where the color of one’s skin, gender, religious affiliation or social class did not determine the respect or opportunities accorded each individual. Upon hearing Rustin announce these and other demands at the March, journalist Murray Kempton is reported to have noted, “No expression one-tenth as radical has ever been seen or heard by so many Americans.”

The March’s radical critique of economic security and American capitalism set the stage for major advances over the half a century since. For instance, as a society, we’ve almost halved the rate of black poverty. Individual black writers, politicians, professors, and business leaders have achieved a prominence denied their ancestors years before. That said, it’s impossible to say that the Civil Rights moved the United States towards a post-racial, egalitarian society.

Faced with unwillingness on the part of party politicians to challenge discriminatory institutions of public life, people of color were once again excluded from structures of opportunity in the United States. In 2011, the Pew Research Center concluded that the wealth gap in median income between white and black households had reached 20-to-1. Additionally, the Economic Policy Institute reports, “In 2012, the black unemployment rate –14 percent – was 2.1 times the white unemployment rate (6.6 percent) and higher than the average national unemployment rate during the Great Depression (13.1 percent).” Perhaps most despairingly they note that, “almost half of poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty; however, only a little more than a tenth of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods.”

This weekend, we saw the energy of the 1963 mobilization reborn in some sense on the National Mall with thousands gathering to protest racial profiling, mass incarceration, and violence against communities of color.

What’s perhaps most exciting about the 50th Anniversary March was the energy brought to the march by young people -- particularly young people of color. Groups like the Black Youth Project and the Dream Defenders used their presence to challenge marcher’s intersectional understandings of the criminalization of communities of color and structural racialization.

They are fighting the battles of the Civil Rights Movement today - putting their bodies on the line for the sake of the social change they wish to see, occupying the Florida State Capital, for instance, and convening their own special sessions for legislative debate. They are forging new, inclusive communities in the face of divisive tactics. They’re energy and purpose in the work are guiding new movements and exploding the narrative of the unengaged millennial. One can only hope that their transformational approach to peace, community-building, and inclusion is once again injected into mainstream conversations on human dignity like those pronounced by Attorney General Eric Holder and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the stairs of the Lincoln Memorial this Saturday.

On the eve of the Supreme Court’s decision this summer on voting rights, Lewis remarked with regret, “I have a strange feeling in America, at this point in history, we’re a little too quiet. We’ve come to a point where we almost want to resign, and say this is just the way it is. But is doesn’t have to be this way. There are still too many people in our society who have been left out and left behind.”

One hopes that, emerging from the weekend of the March on Washington, our voices shook Lewis ever so slightly -- that in the silence he observed had not been weakness but latent potential awaiting its time.