Fifty Years Later: How Far Have We Marched?

The March on Washington fifty years ago was the first of many marches I would make: for civil rights; against one war, then another; against poverty; for women’s rights; for gun control; for the environment; and now back to celebrate the first.

They merge a bit in my memory. I’m not totally sure who all was with me at which event. I definitely remember sweltering in a suit and tie to help bring a white middle-class look to that first March for Jobs and Freedom.

I was inspired by King’s speech. But I was also inspired by practically everyone who spoke that day. To my young earnest policy wonk mind others seemed to be more on the specific agenda message than he was. Certainly I had no sense that his speech would be so historic. Nor that the March would be.

I was a volunteer foot soldier in Dr. King’s army: registering black voters in Virginia, picketing against discrimination in housing and hiring practices, helping get white faces to meetings and rallies. In 1965, I joined the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, where unlike the earlier Washington march, real fear walked with us.

This activism didn’t come naturally. I came from a family of white working poor—mostly indifferent to the oppression of the “Negroes.” We had our own problems paying the rent and putting food on the table. And, at least subconsciously, we were vaguely aware that the subjugation of black people kept us from joining them at the absolute bottom of the economic ladder.

Nor was I a student activist. I had married young and had a wife and two children to support. Just being at the March was something most in my family and the old neighborhood did not understand. Why was this my fight?

I didn’t fully understand it myself. But King helped me see how the issues of class and race exploitation overlapped. He brought me–like many others–with him on a political journey from the initial moral disgust at the brutal repression in the Jim Crow South to an understanding of the way the entire country’s elite used racial antagonism to keep the working class divided. Finally, to his prescient grasp of the massive damage that the Vietnam War would do to this country.

The spirit on the Mall that day fifty years ago was alive with anger, joy, anxiety and hope. Our goal was to shape America’s future.

We did, in part. But not quite the way I would have guessed. In 1963, I imagined that the economic demands—the “Jobs” part of the March for Jobs and Freedom—would certainly have been met by now. Most of us at that time assumed a more or less continuous rise in living standards for all Americans far into the future. Not just through higher and higher wages, but in public goods and services as well. Certainly, I would have thought that by 2013 we would have had permanent full employment, universal health care, free higher education for anyone who wanted it, and a work week that was well below forty hours.

On the other hand, I would have thought that the social barriers to integration would fall slower. After all, prosperity was just a technical issue of getting the policy right, while integration meant changing values that seemed deeply rooted in the human psyche.

The social struggle continues of course; how is it that a young black man is shot to death in Florida and no one is guilty? And the gaps between white and black and Latino rates of unemployment and poverty remain. But for anyone who remembers what the relationship between the races 50 years ago, the progress toward a multi-racial society has been remarkable—symbolized by the election of an African-American President with a name like Barack Obama, which at the time would have seemed like science fiction.

Moreover, the civil rights movement later inspired the War on Poverty, the women’s movement, and from there the various drives to extend political and social equality to all who had been left out of the American Dream.

But we were blindsided by the economy. A decade after the 1963 March, the post World War II improvement in income and wealth equality began to reverse. Globalization, the war on unions, deregulation and privatization and the rising influence of the rich on economic policy lowered real incomes and living standards for everyone—whatever the color of their skin. Today, after five years of high unemployment, wage depression and shrinking opportunities, there is no serious plan to change our trajectory—even among those who this week will strut in front of the cameras claiming to be King’s heirs.

The people marching around me Saturday seemed to understand all this. But the images and phrases that we need to galvanize the sense of wider class solidarity still elude us. I know we will eventually find them. Which is why I also know that this was not my last March on Washington.