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The Unfinished March


The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Millions of Americans know that speech well enough to paraphrase its concluding passages. But there were nine other speeches that day, calling not just for legal rights, but for jobs and a living wage. On this 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, it is critical to revisit this forgotten history of the march.

Yes, the march galvanized the nation, and the civil rights struggle it heralded was among the most inspiring and effective social movements in American—if not world—history. Today, we can celebrate blacks’ equal access to public accommodations, a law against racial discrimination in employment, and black voting rights because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But the hard economic goals of the march, critical to transforming the life opportunities of African Americans, were not fully achieved. The organizers of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom also demanded decent housing, adequate and integrated education, a federal jobs program for full employment, and a national minimum wage of over $13.001 an hour in today’s dollars.2

The key organizers of the march, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, understood that improving the socioeconomic position of African Americans required an end to both race- and class-based injustices in America (Anderson 1997, 239–240; March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 1963b, 3). In his speech at the march, Randolph, president of the Negro American Labor Council, stated:

  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Still in ghettos of poverty. The decent housing that marchers called for is still lacking.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Still in segregated and unequal schools. Marchers demanded adequate and integrated education, but that has not been achieved.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Still twice as likely to be unemployed. Jobs for all have not been created.
  • mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Still struggling for a living wage. A minimum wage sufficient to lift working families out of poverty is not in place. line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
    "Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Still in ghettos of poverty

    In his speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, stated:

    Figure A

  • Percent of poor children living in areas of concentrated poverty, by race/ethnicity, 2006–2010 average

    Race/Ethnicity Percent of poor children living in areas of concentrated poverty
    White 12%
    Hispanic 35%
    Black 45%
    Asian and Pacific Islander 21%
    American Indian 39%
     

    Note: "Concentrated poverty" is defined as a census tract with a poverty rate of 30 percent or higher.

    Source: Kids Count (2012)

    Concentrated poverty is correlated with a host of social and economic challenges. Children in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty experience more social and behavioral problems, have lower test scores, and are more likely to drop out of school (Kids Count 2012). Poorer cities tend to have higher crime rates (Kneebone and Raphael 2011, 12), and this relationship likely partially explains why black youth have the highest homicide mortality rates (National Center for Health Statistics 2012, 158–159).

    Poor black neighborhoods also have environmental hazards that impact health. A very serious one is higher exposure to lead, which impedes learning, lowers earnings, and heightens crime rates (Acevedo-Garcia 2006, 131; Gould 2009; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2013). While rates of lead exposure have been declining for all races, African American children continue to have the highest exposure rate (Gould 2009; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2013). Poor black neighborhoods also “have a higher prevalence of alcohol and fast food outlets compared to wealthy and predominantly white neighborhoods” and their residents have “fewer opportunities to be physically active, due to higher crime rates and limited availability of green space” (Acevedo-Garcia 2006, 132).

    Among poor children, white children have the lowest likelihood of residing in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, and thus the best opportunity to access middle-class community resources. In contrast, poor black children have the highest likelihood of living in concentrated poverty, and thus the worst access to middle-class community resources.

    African Americans not only disproportionately lack decent housing in neighborhoods of opportunity, a significant number simply lack any housing. In recent years, blacks have made up nearly 40 percent of the population living in homeless shelters although they make up only about 13 percent of the U.S. population (HUD 2012, 16). Undoubtedly, blacks are overrepresented among America’s homeless because they have the highest rate of “severely cost-burdened” renters. Individuals paying half or more of their total income on housing—the severely cost-burdened—are more likely to end up homeless.3

    While decent housing is an important goal in and of itself, housing is also linked to health, education, employment, and wealth outcomes. For example, severely cost-burdened renters and homeowners, who are spending at least half of their income on housing, are much less able to save for things such as continued education for themselves or their children, and are thus less likely to reap the employment and wealth benefits advanced education brings. Thus, without greater access to decent housing, the struggle for black socioeconomic advancement will be dramatically harder.

    line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
    "Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”>Still in segregated and unequal schools

    Speakers at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom addressed the need for black children to gain access to adequate and integrated education.

    “We will not stop our marching feet until our kids…can study a wide range without being cramped in Jim Crow schools,” vowed James Farmer, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality.4

    “[Negro Americans] must march from the congested ill-equipped schools, which breed dropouts, and which smother motivation to the well-equipped integrated facilities throughout the cities,” argued Whitney M. Young Jr.

    Roy Wilkins, executive secretary of the NAACP, pointed out that in spite of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, “for nine years, our parents and their children have been met with either a flat refusal or a token action in school desegregation. Every added year of such treatment is a leg iron upon our men and women.”

    Many more years have been added to the delay Wilkins decried. Nearly 60 years after the Brown decision, more than 50 years after the “Little Rock Nine” were escorted by federal troops into Little Rock Central High School, nearly three-fourths (74.1 percent) of black students still attend segregated schools, defined as majority nonwhite (as of 2010, as shown in Figure B). This is nearly the same share as in the late 1960s, when 76.6 percent of black children attended ma