Revisiting the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Table of Contents

The huge crowd gathered from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, during the March on Washington

The huge crowd gathered from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument, during the March on Washington

By Warren K. Leffler

source: Library of Congress

What was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom? 

On 28 August 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led more than 250,000 demonstrators in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The march was a monumental moment for the civil rights movement, creating the final push for key legislation to pass Congress. The movement fought systemic segregation and discrimination, winning the citizenship rights unjustly held from African Americans for so long.

Although wildly successful, the March on Washington failed on one major front: jobs. This is the often forgotten piece. MLK and countless other leaders knew that the country needed to achieve economic justice for all citizens to live secure and healthy lives. While the march happened close to half a century ago, the push for a safe and fair economy has perhaps never been more necessary.

MLK sought to achieve economic justice for all Americans. Through slavery, redlining due to the National Housing Act, wage discrimination, and much more, the Black community has bore serious economic injustices. The U.S. economy was rigged against them, but we might have an even bigger economic problem on our hands…

Origins of the March on Washington

The Labor Movement & the Civil Rights Movement

The seeds of the March on Washington were sown a little over two decades prior to the actual event. Preparations for World War II in the summer of 1941 had created millions of new jobs in urban areas. African Americans moved away from the South to the North and West, hoping to start a new life. But instead of economic opportunity, they were met with discrimination and violence

A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, learned of the abuses against African Americans who sought work in the defense industry. He threatened to mobilize 100,000 protestors in a march on the nation’s capital. President Franklin D. Roosevelt took Randolph’s threats very seriously, deciding to issue Executive Order 8802. The order called for the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC), which would investigate the racial discrimination charges against defense firms. Randolph decided to back down after Roosevelt’s decision.

Photograph of labor leader A. Phillip Randolph

Photograph of labor leader A. Phillip Randolph

source: Library of Congress

A few years later, the hard-won progress soon went up in smoke. Congress first cut funding to the FEPC and soon after decided to dissolve the FEPC in 1946

Progress on hold

By 1963, the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, little progress had been made since the early achievements in the late 1800s. One major area of concern was the unemployment rate among African Americans (10.9%), more than double the rate among White Americans (5%). To provide some perspective, the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis caused the unemployment rate to peak at 10%.

African Americans who could find employment worked for minimal wages and had little chance to find better-paying jobs. Furthermore, racial segregation continued to plague the South. Violent attacks on civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, served as a flashpoint, generating a strong desire for immediate wholesale change. To no surprise, Randolph rose to the occasion. 

Representing numerous civil rights organizations, he once again took up his powerful pen and paper. He penned a letter on 24 May 1962 to Secretary Stewart Udall of the Department of the Interior, inquiring about the permits necessary for a march to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

In March 1963, Randolph and other leaders established the “Goals of Rights March”: 

  • A comprehensive civil rights bill that would eliminate segregated public accommodations; 
  • Suffrage protections;
  • Mechanisms for seeking redress of violations of African Americans’ constitutional rights’ 
  • Desegregation of all public schools; 
  • A federal works program to train and place unemployed workers;
  • And the passage of a Federal Fair Employment Practices Act prohibiting discrimination in all employment.

King joins the March on Washington

Randolph telegraphed King asking for support. The labor leader discussed his plans to march in June. MLK, in the midst of the Birmingham Campaign, decided to join Randolph and other leaders in the endeavor.

The Good Friday Parade

The Good Friday Parade, April 23, 1963

Source: Encyclopedia of Alabama

On June 22, President John F. Kennedy gathered the civil rights leaders before the March on Washington, expressing his concerns that the event would incite violence. JFK suggested that the march was perhaps “ill-timed” and attempted to dissuade the group. He said, “We want success in the Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol.” MLK responded: “Frankly, I have never engaged in any direct-action movement which did not seem ill-timed.”

Refusing to desist, the leaders of the major civil rights organizations scheduled the march for August 28th. 

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The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Thousands made their way to Washington, D.C. to participate in the March on Washington. JFK still feared the protest could get violent, worrying that an outbreak could derail the civil rights bill. Nevertheless, the march remained calm and peaceful.

Beyond the march itself, the protest featured both speeches from prominent civil rights activists and musical performances from icons such as Bob Dylan. A. Phillip Randolph actually delivered the first speech of the day, declaring:

We are not a pressure group, we are not an organization or a group of organizations, we are not a mob. We are the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom. This revolution reverberates throughout the land touching every city, every town, every village where black men are segregated, oppressed, and exploited. But this civil rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not.

The Ten Demands

Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s aide, took the stand and listed the ten demands of the protestors. From desegregation to a national minimum wage, the demands addressed a wide range of racial, social, and economic inequities.

To focus on a demand related to economic opportunities, here is the 7th demand: “A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”

Bayard Rustin (left) speaking to Cleveland Robinson (right) in preparation fro the March on Washington

Bayard Rustin (left) speaking to Cleveland Robinson (right) in preparation for the March on Washington

Source: Library of Congress

These demands would later serve as inspiration for the creators of the Black Panther Party, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale. They adapted the ten demands in creating their own 10-point Program, the ‘manifesto’ of the Panthers. 

King Takes the Stage

The monumental occasion culminated in a phrase now etched into the U.S.’s history books: “I have a dream…” The Alabamian minister took the podium, delivering a sermon that shook the audience and live television viewers to the core.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

The day concluded with a meeting in the White House’s Oval Office, involving the civil rights leaders, President Kennedy, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. They discussed the importance of bipartisan support for the civil rights bill. The rousing event and a public tired of flagrant inequality created that final push necessary for legislative reform. 

Despite the tragic assassination of Kennedy, the  Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed Congress and were signed into law. The march, although majorly successful on the freedom front, did not engender considerable progress on the job front.

Civil Rights Leaders Meet with John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office after the March on Washington

Civil Rights Leaders Meet with John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office after the March on Washington

source: Library of Congress

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The Forgotten Economic Piece

While the Civil Rights Act included provisions to break down discriminatory barriers to employment, the legislation did not include any plans for job creation. The March on Washington was an unequivocal success, but one cannot claim that the leaders achieved all that they set out to do.

Unsurprisingly, Randolph stepped up once more to lead the charge. 

In 1966, he and Bayard Rustin gathered respected economists, labor unionists, and civil rights leaders to develop a ‘Freedom Budget for All Americans.’ The budget proposed a number of job creation initiatives to achieve the following:

  • Minimize unemployment
  • Provide a guaranteed annual income for impoverished families
  • Boost federal spending to eliminate slums, build public works, and improve public schools

Civil rights groups, black power organizations, religious organizations, trade unions, and legislators supported the Freedom Budget. Despite considerable backing, the Freedom Budget could not get much traction in Congress. The government was focused on funding the war effort in Vietnam, choosing ‘guns over butter.’

People often forget that the main part of MLK’s mission was to achieve economic justice for all Americans. He founded the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, a group that worked for a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged.” MLK knew that the systemic suffering of even one group represented a loss for each and every one of us. Spending his last years aiding a Memphis sanitation worker strike, he remained dedicated to reforming the economy so that everyone had enough to live a secure and healthy life. 

Takeaways from the March on Washington

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom helped bring the civil rights movement to the fore and gave the civil rights bill that extra push to get through Congress. Despite its considerable success, it could not create the economic progress it expressly set out to achieve. 

To this day, economic injustice potentially plagues the U.S. economy today. Not just against the Black community, but against all of us average Americans. 

The rigged economy could be a massive multi-trillion dollar problem that does not discriminate. Powerful and profit-hungry, the corrupt among the corporations and the super-rich could be manipulating the system in order to make as much money as possible from the average American. 

But how do you fight this potential problem?

The Zero Theft Movement has created an independent voting platform where you and your fellow citizens work together to calculate the most accurate estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the United States. 

The public investigates potential problem areas, and everyone votes on whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas exist and start working on addressing them systematically. 

Only through hard evidence can we prove where the rigged parts of the economy exist and force Congress to hold all the bad actors accountable.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

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Beyond the Plunge Protection Team…

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