Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington

August 28, 2013: Today marks the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The hidden history of the march may surprise you—and it shows why we need to keep marching today.

Hidden History: The March on Washington was not organized by Martin Luther King.

The march is best remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech which continues to inspire millions of Americans.

But Dr. King was not the main organizer of the March on Washington—a labor leader was. The March on Washington was the brainchild of A. Philip Randolph, the 74-year-old leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first primarily Black labor union. 

Randolph first called for a march on Washington to protest employment discrimination in 1941. That never happened, but he relaunched the project in 1963 and reached out to King and other civil rights and labor groups. The rest is history.

Hidden History: Marchers Demanded Jobs and Economic Justice

Dr. King’s speech is mostly remembered as a call for racial understanding and his dream that one day his children “will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

But Dr. King’s speech went far beyond a call for respect and racial harmony.  So did the official demands of the march.

The marchers demanded comprehensive Civil Rights legislation: the Right to Vote, the desegregation of all public schools, and an end to housing discrimination.

But that was not all. Marchers also demanded a minimum wage high enough to lift a family out of poverty, and “give all Americans a decent standard of living.” They demanded “meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.”

These demands for economic justice tend to be forgotten—and are still unmet.

Hidden History: Wages and Income Inequality are Worse Today Than in 1963

The federal minimum wage today is less than it was at the time of the March on Washington. The $1.15-per-hour minimum in August 1963 translates into an inflation-adjusted wage of about $8.80 today. The current minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.

Marchers demanded an 85¢ increase in the minimum wage to $2.00. Adjusting for inflation, that wage would be more than $13.00 an hour today.

We Need to Keep Marching

Fifty years later, the March on Washington continues to inspire and shows the power that labor and civil rights organizers can have when we work together.

The March on Washington helped win the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act which made racial and gender discrimination illegal in the workplace. Our country is a much better place for the March and the Civil Rights Movement.

But the lack of “meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages” and growing economic inequality are the March’s unfinished business. We need to keep marching today.

Read more:

How Black Unionists Organized the 1963 March for Jobs & Freedom

Fifty years after March on Washington, economic gap between blacks, whites persists

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