Commemorating The 1963 March For Jobs and Freedom

Eric Arnesen
Professor of History
The George Washington University

Half a century ago, on August 28, 1963, the nation’s capital witnessed the single largest demonstration in its history to date. Roughly a quarter-million Americans gathered on the mall before the Lincoln Memorial in a protest calling for “jobs and freedom.” Among those travelling to Washington, D.C. from across the country were African Americans and whites, people of faith, veteran activists and many who had never before demonstrated. Also present that day were tens of thousands of trade unionists, whose numbers, funding, logistical assistance and moral support helped make the march an historic success. View the booklet of the March on Washington, here.

And as we all know, the 1963 march subsequently became enshrined in Americans’ historical consciousness, and understandably so. It was on that occasion that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream” speech. That speech has been reprinted and replayed countless of times – in schools, in newspapers, on television, radio programs and in documentary films. It is perhaps the best-known moment of the civil rights era. King’s powerful and poetic words put forward a vision of an integrated America, of a nation whose ideal of “the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was no longer denied to people of color.

 What we remember about the march is that it was about King’s “dream” and black “freedom,” sweeping terms that embrace demands for an end to segregation on the one hand, and demands for genuine equality before the law on the other. In the nation’s consciousness, the 1963 march was King’s march.

King’s speech may be the iconic symbol of the march, but the civil rights minister was not the driving force behind the gathering. And the protest was not only about the “dream” and “freedom.” The other half of the march’s slogan, “jobs,” has been conveniently forgotten.

The initial organizers of the march were the civil rights legend, A. Philip Randolph, and his assistant, Bayard Rustin. Randolph was, at the time, the most important black trade unionist in the nation, a man considered to be the “dean” of the civil rights movement; Rustin would go on to work with the AFL-CIO in the years that followed. As historian William Jones recently reminded us, the march was initially the project of the Negro American Labor Council.

And what of the march’s purpose? Organizers explained their goals clearly and forcefully. “We march to redress old grievances and to help resolve an American crisis,” they declared. “That 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, who is denied the right to vote, economically exploited, refused access to public accommodations, subjected to inferior education, and relegated to substandard ghetto housing.”

African Americans weren’t the only group subject to these evils, for Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and other minorities also faced discrimination in education and apprenticeship training programs and were, like blacks, “helpless in our mechanized industrial society.”

“Despite this crisis,” organizers explained, “reactionary Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress are still working to defeat effective civil rights legislation. They fight against the rights of all workers and minority groups. They are the sworn enemies of freedom and justice.”

Although the old labor saying of “an injury to one is an injury to all” did not find its way into official march pronouncements, the spirit behind that saying did. The enemies of freedom “know that as long as black works are voteless, exploited and underpaid, the fight of the white workers for decent wages and working conditions will fail,” organizers made clear. “They know that semi-slavery for one means semi-slavery for all.”

What, then, did the march organizers demand? “We march to demonstrate, massively and dramatically, our unalterable opposition to these forces – and to their century-long robbery of the American people,” they exclaimed. “Our bodies. . . will bear witness – will service historic notice – that Jobs and Freedom are needed NOW.”

This demonstration, then, was not simply about civil rights broadly construed – particularly the abolition of segregation across the land. It also had an economic dimension, and the “jobs” demand rested on an understanding that all American workers, black and white, needed access to employment—something, organizers argued, that the government was responsible for ensuring. Among their many demands were a call for a massive federal job training program, a national minimum wage that would “give all Americans a decent standard of living, broader coverage for the Fair Labor Standards Act, and a federal fair employment practices act that barred employment discrimination.

For A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights and labor leader, the march was the culmination of almost a half century of struggle for black and labor equality. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, Randolph proclaimed that those gathered were “the advance guard of a massive moral revolution.” This “civil rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights,“ he insisted. The economic and labor themes of the protest were pronounced: “[W]e know we have no future in a society in which 6 million black and white people are unemployed and millions live in poverty…We want a free democratic society dedicated to the political, economic and social advancement…It falls to us to demand full employment and to put automation at the service of human needs, not at the service of profits.” Ultimately, Randolph’s agenda would be only partially realized: the laws against legalized segregation would soon fall, but the broader social democratic vision of economic equality for all Americans would not come to pass.

The 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington will be celebrated later this summer. It’s safe to predict that the event will receive significant coverage in the press. What will that coverage focus on? King’s “dream” speech, with its vision of an integrated and racially harmonious America, will undoubtedly be recalled. Some commentators will probably emphasize the “just how far we have come” theme, while others will stress “just how much farther we still have to go.” We will probably hear a great deal about “freedom.” But will the economic and labor dimension of the march receive equal coverage? It is too early to say. As the anniversary approaches, it is important to recall remember what brought so many people to Washington that August. It was a vision of an America in which self respect and freedom rested on an economic foundation of labor rights. In these trying times for American workers of all races, that is a vision worth recalling.