Demonstrators to descend on Washington Saturday to commemorate 1963 King march
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaks to thousands during his "I Have A Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington on August 28, 1963. | AP

WASHINGTON—On August 26, again at the Lincoln Memorial, there’ll be another mass March on Washington, just as there was in 1963.

Organized by the Drum Major Institute, which the King family heads, and the National Action Network, the march starts at 8 a.m. with the main program beginning three hours later at the Lincoln Memorial.

The mass march march marks the 60th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. That march was for “Jobs and Justice.” This march will remind the nation those goals have yet to be met—especially, says the Economic Policy Institute, on jobs.

The Communist Party USA, along with many others who plan to participate this weekend, agrees that jobs and much more still remain to be addressed six decades after the original march.

“Sixty years later many of the issues that caused folks to march remain,” said Joe Sims, co-chair of the CPUSA. “Voting rights are suppressed, racist cops murder us, banks still redline,  and schools remain segregated,” he said. “In addition, new issues have emerged: the outlawing of affirmative action and abortion rights, environmental racism, attacks on LGBTQ rights, and wasting vast resources to the tune of $1 trillion a year on war. It’s time to put on our marching shoes!”

In the leadup to the march this weekend, a new EPI study shows while the nation has concentrated on the “justice” segment, with civil rights and voting rights legislation–since eroded by the right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court and in red state legislatures—the jobs goal has been largely ignored.

Which means there’s been only minimal progress on economic equality for Americans of color.

Or, to rework John F. Kennedy’s original statement, “A rising tide does not lift all boats.” Not the economic boats of Black Americans.

The analysis delves into continuing economic and political inequality facing people of color in general and Blacks in particular in the U.S., six decades after King’s march. King himself called out the economic injustice in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech—in a section of the address rarely played in ensuing commemorations.

“The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” King declared. “One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense, we’ve come to our Nation’s Capital to cash a check.

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, Black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Defaulted on the promissory note

“It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

Those “insufficient funds” include the continuing economic lag afflicting Black Americans in particular and workers of color in general has several causes, explained Adewale Maye, a policy and research analyst with EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.

The biggest one is systemic racism, often unacknowledged, whose effects continue. In the 31–page report, Maye makes the point that often even so-called “color-blind” policies had little impact.

Some of the most famous drivers of economic improvement, such as the GI Bill of Rights and the Fair Labor Standards Act—the nation’s basic minimum wage and overtime law—specifically discriminated against soldiers of color seeking home loans (the GI Bill) and certain Black and brown workers (the FLSA).

The jobs numbers tell a similar story. The Black unemployment rate, even in times, such as the present, when overall official joblessness has been low, has consistently been double the rate for whites. At the time of the 1963 march, the official white jobless rate was 5%. The Black rate was 10.9%.

The official annual rate of white joblessness in this century peaked at 8.7% in 2010, during the financier-caused Great Recession. The peak annual rate for Blacks was 19.5% in a Reagan recession in 1983.

Two other policy gaps particularly affected Black workers and continue to do so.

  • One is the failure to raise the federal minimum wage.
  • The other is the systematic corporate campaign, aided by Supreme Court rulings and anti-worker legislation, starting with the Republican-passed Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, to weaken organized labor, especially in the private sector.

“One of the primary demands of the March on Washington was a national minimum wage that provided an adequate standard of living,” Maye wrote. “Organizers indicated anything less than $2 an hour—$19.53 in 2023 dollars—would be insufficient.

“Today, the federal minimum wage has remained stalled at $7.25 since 2009. Black workers are more likely to be employed in jobs paying the minimum wage and less likely to work in states or localities that passed a state minimum wage higher than the federal minimum wage. Raising the minimum wage to at least $17 an hour would greatly benefit Black workers and their families. The Raise The Wage Act of 2023 would achieve this.”

Senate Labor Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., and Rep. Bobby Scott, the top Democrat on the Republican-run House Education and the Workforce Committee, introduced that bill just before Congress went on its August recess.

And the march’s organizers demanded “a broader, more inclusive Fair Labor Standards Act,” Maye wrote, to bring those excluded workers of color—home health care workers, domestic workers, farm workers among them—under its protective umbrella.

Except where unions have successfully lobbied individual states to protect those worker groups, they still are excluded from its minimum wage and overtime pay mandates.

Anti-union policies a factor

And for decades, Maye adds, despite the obstacles in the way of union organizing—especially, though Maye does not say so, in the union-hostile states of the South—Blacks consistently have been more unionized than any other racial group in the U.S. “The Protecting the Right To Organize (PRO) Act would also benefit Black workers by making it easier for workers who want union representation to organize,” Maye wrote.

“The PRO Act would bolster the National Labor Relations Act with new provisions that would prevent employers from exploiting legal loopholes to suppress and impede negotiations with their workers. These protections are critical for Black workers to build power in their workplaces and safeguard their labor rights.”

Even efforts to protect everyone do little to erode the hundreds of years of systemic racism and its impact on workers of color, Maye said.

“Race-neutral legislation intended to help families earning low incomes and alleviate economic strain among middle-class households has only mitigated racial economic disparities slightly. That’s because these disparities are the result of policies,” such as redlining, “that denied Black families the opportunity to build wealth and economic stability and fully participate in American society.

“Racial economic inequalities will persist without legislation explicitly targeting and remedying the injustices left unresolved by so-called race-neutral policies, which disregard the challenges that specific racial or ethnic groups face.”

Such targeting can, and has, occurred, though not by race, Maye shows. It came from the combined $4 trillion economic boost the Democratic Biden administration and the narrow Democratic congressional majorities enacted to combat the coronavirus-caused Depression.

Those measures, including the Cares Act, the American Rescue Plan Act’s stimulus checks, and the expanded earned income tax credit benefited workers and people of color far more than the general population. That’s in direct contrast to the $787 billion act to aid the recovery from the 2008 financier-caused depression. Most of that money went to businesses and banks.

The Biden-era laws, which labor strongly supported, also injected so much money into the economy that the official private sector recovery from virus-caused depression took 27 months, compared to 76 months for private-sector recovery from the financier-caused crash a decade before.

Though Maye did not say so, there’s one other current lag that harms workers of color.

The public sector has yet to recover its pre-coronavirus employment levels, federal data shows. And that’s important to Americans of color. Public sector jobs, in the schools, the Postal Service, and in state and federal agencies—especially agencies dealing with human services—have been longtime routes for workers of color and their families to enter the middle class. When the virus hit, those agencies shut down or cut their workforces, often when those workers were most needed to aid everyone else.

“These policies were passed out of necessity to address the state of the economy and combat a global crisis. Their success highlights that, if motivated to do so, federal policymakers could authorize an appropriate level of investment to oppose the lingering economic effects of what is America’s oldest crisis—structural racism,” Maye writes.

“Race-conscious policies acknowledge the historical and systemic disadvantages these groups endure and strive to address those disparities. These policies offer support to communities that have historically faced marginalization. The U.S. can achieve the dream of racial equity and justice through the implementation of race-conscious policies,” Maye concludes.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.