WASHINGTON – The nation’s unions plan a massive presence at the 50th commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 March on Washington, and they’ll renew and reemphasize that march’s themes of jobs and freedom as strongly now as they were emphasized then.
The new march will be August 24, starting at the Lincoln Memorial and proceeding to the nearby memorial to the assassinated civil rights leader, unions told members in alerts. The AFL-CIO, the Communications Workers, the Service Employees, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers and other unions will emphasize good jobs at decent wages and civil rights at work and at the polls, which are just as important now as they were on Aug. 28, 1963.
That’s when more than 250,000 people flooded into D.C. from around the country to give an enormous boost to civil rights legislation outlawing discrimination in public accommodations, passed in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965. They were energized that day in their campaign by King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech.
The Auto Workers, the Teachers and RWDSU were major backers of the 1963 march, organized by A. Philip Randolph, longtime president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, activist Bayard Rustin and UAW President Walter Reuther.
Randolph originally planned the march in 1941 to demand that FDR end job discrimination in defense plants. He called it off when Roosevelt signed an executive order outlawing the racist hiring practices. Randolph revived the march in 1963 – over President John F. Kennedy’s worries – after Southern segregationists arrested, jailed, beat, shot at and murdered civil rights workers and activists, black and white.
Speakers at the AFL-CIO symposium previewing the 50th anniversary march said the issues it raised are just as alive now as they were then. And they issued a call for more masses of people to assemble on Washington’s Mall. Unionists interested in marching should contact locals or their national union’s headquarters for information.
Symposium speakers stated voting rights of African-Americans, Latinos, women, youth, the elderly and workers are under attack from a combination of the U.S. Supreme Court’s destruction of a key section of the Voting Rights Act and so-called “Voter ID” laws and other restrictions on the right to vote shoved through GOP-run states.
And King’s march, the speakers reminded the crowd, was about “jobs and freedom,” with, as AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker noted, “jobs” listed first. “That’s too often forgotten,” said Holt Baker, herself a movement veteran.
In 1963, the marchers also demanded government aid to jobless workers – at a time when six percent unemployment was considered too high, she noted. They’ll be demanding that aid, and much more, on August 24.
“The need for political and economic rights is stronger than ever,” AFT president Randi Weingarten told a press conference earlier this year announcing the commemorative march. “The fight for equality and justice starts at the voting booth, at the job site, at the school site.”
Clayola Brown, president of the AFL-CIO’s A. Philip Randolph Institute, one of the federation’s two constituency groups for African-American workers, added that “Like then, today the job situation is deplorable. Today we have 30 year-old people who have never had a full-time job in their lives.”
“So much of what we sought to achieve 50 years ago is gravely threatened today,” the Communications Workers warned in issuing a call to their members to march on August 24. “We will gather together not as a commemoration, but as a continuation and a call to action. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom secured vital civil rights for millions, however many of the other goals championed that day have not been met,” the union added, referring to economic equality goals.
“Dr. King saw the civil rights struggle and the labor movement as closely linked,” RWDSU said. “He was a constant ally of union activists, and most have forgotten Dr. King was in Tennessee to support a living wage for sanitation strikers on that terrible April day in 1968 when he was slain at the age of 39. In reflecting on the life and work of Dr. King, we recognize the fight he began is not over until equality for all is a reality, and it is up to our generation of RWDSU members to complete his mission.”
“When I think about where we were then versus where we are now, I get concerned,” Faith Culbreath, president of SEIU’s African-American Caucus, said in a posting urging union members to descend on D.C., then return to their home states with renewed activism. “Just as my mother would have never thought back then NOT to go to the march, I’m sure scores of young people today aren’t as socially aware and wouldn’t think to attend the anniversary. That needs to change. We all, no matter our age, need to come together, demand change and be part of the solution.
“In 1963, march organizers called for ending systemic discrimination, making sure people had jobs, raising the minimum wage — and realizing the dream King so eloquently laid out. On August 24, the march will be an extension of what we were
fighting for then and the struggles we’re still trying to overcome today…But there is still much more work we need to do. Think about the poverty rate, and the unemployment rate and how many people are working in low-wage jobs.
“This march cannot simply be symbolic. The way we are going to make change is to get active,” Culbreath declared.
Photo: The 1963 March on Washington. Wikipedia (CC)