On August 28, 1963, a quarter of a million people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., as part of the “Great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” (PBS). Remembered most for Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the march was a historic moment in the Civil Rights Movement, paving the way to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the ratification of the 24th Amendment. Today—and even at the time—what is often lost in the commemoration of the March of Washington is that it wasn’t just a call for racial equality but a demand for economic justice.
Held on the anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder and 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation (History), the March on Washington sought to address injustices against Black people, calling for the end of racial segregation, effective civil rights legislation, voting rights, fair wages, a federal jobs program, and adequate housing and education (Organizing Manuel).
• Join this year’s march at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., on August 26.
• Learn more about the March on Washington, including following the coverage and speeches from the day.
• Learn how they can help promote economic justice by closing the racial and gender wealth gap.
Support and join organizations like Poor People’s Army, uniting poor and working people to abolish poverty and expand economic human rights.
Grassroots organizers, prominent civil rights organizations, clergy leaders, student activists, women’s groups, unions, and Black labor leaders were spurred on by organizers A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin (Zinn Education Project). However, the concept for the march was inspired by the earlier work of Randolph.
A. Philip Randolph, the founder of Negro American Labor Council (NALC) and the nation’s first predominantly Black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, previously proposed a 1941 Black-led March on Washington (Library of Congress). The threat forced FDR to address the main concern. Randolph’s work focused on securing opportunities and protections for the Black working class, understanding that “racial equality is impossible without economic justice” (Jacobin).
“That [American] crisis is born of the twin evils of racism and economic deprivation. They rob all people, Negro and white, of dignity, self-respect, and freedom. They impose a special burden on the Negro…
[Republicans and Southern Democrats] know that as long as black workers are voteless, exploited, and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail. They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.”
– The Organizing Manual for the 1964 March on Washington
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom emerged from the increasing Black unemployment and unlivable wages, persistent racial segregation and violence, and the stalling of the Civil Rights Act. It took Randolph and other Black labor unionists’ push “for Negro job rights” and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) crusade for freedom to merge their causes into a joint coalition in pursuit of equality and economic justice (Stanford King Institute). This coalition included the NALC, SCLC, Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, NAACP, the National Urban League, and more.
As A. Philip Randolph said during his speech:
“And we know that we have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white?”
…The March on Washington is not the climax of our struggle, but a new beginning not only for the Negro but for all Americans who thirst for freedom and a better life. Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro…” (Open Vault).
In the aftermath of the march, the vision, which aimed to address how the current system exploits the working class and poor Black people, hindering economic and personal prosperity, shifted to how to expand equality into the current socioeconomic order (Dissent Magazine). “We must face the fact that, in the past, what we have called the movement has not really questioned the middle-class values and institutions of this country,” said Stokely Carmichael, activist and leader of the Black nationalism movement. “If anything, it has accepted those values and institutions without fully realizing their racist nature” (Black Power).
Speeches from John Lewis or Randolph are rarely discussed in the remembrance of the march, but their message still resonates 60 years later. They reflect how the civil rights movement overall was a step forward, not the final blow against racial or economic injustice.
Today, at the current pace, it would take more than 500 years for Black people to reach economic equality in the U.S. (Institute for Policy Studies). We still find ourselves fighting for voting rights, the end of police brutality, fair wages, affordable housing, economic equality, and basic humanity from politicians on both sides of the aisle who are more invested in themselves than the struggles of the marginalized and working-class populace.
But if the March on Washington has taught anything, it’s that mobilizing can move progress forward, but not when we confine ourselves to single issues. Instead, we must strive for mass solidarity and advancing justice for all. Only then will we all be free.
• The March on Washington was one of the largest mass mobilizations advocating for civil rights and economic justice.
• The march was a turning point in the civil rights movement, paving the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
• Today, we find ourselves fighting the same issues and injustices.