Today in the nation’s capital, thousands have gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington. There will be speeches, rallies, and other events. Another series of events is planned for this Wednesday. President Obama will speak at that second march, which will occur exactly 50 years after the original march took place, on August 28th, 1963.
Americans remember the march as an historic step forward in the battle for civil rights. But feel-good media celebrations of the march, and the civil rights era in general, often focus on the less controversial parts of the civil rights project: equal accommodations and the like. What they leave out is the more radical, still unfinished business of Dr. King’s and the civil rights movement’s agenda: the part that involved, in the words of Harold Meyerson, “massive structural changes to the economy.”
Meyerson has a wonderful piece in The American Prospect this week about the economic progressives who helped plan the March on Washington. Among them were activists Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker and labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Like MLK himself, they were democratic socialists. As Meyerson notes, as early as 1962, democratic socialist and writer Michael Harrington was worried about “the declining number of African Americans in manufacturing jobs.” He believed that ensuring the government’s commitment to full employment was crucial. Activists such as A. Philip Randolph raised similar concerns. Meyerson picks up the story:
An organization that Randolph chaired, the Negro American Labor Council, began discussing what action it could take to address the plight of urban black workers in 1961. Rustin started taking soundings for some kind of national demonstration in 1962, and in December of that year, he and Randolph began talking about a march on Washington. Randolph asked Rustin to write a prospectus for such a march, and with Kahn and Norman Hill, an African American socialist activist, he co-authored a paper calling for an “Emancipation March for Jobs” that he presented to Randolph in January 1963 (the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation).
Ultimately, the focus of the march expanded beyond economic rights to include civil rights and voting rights. But economic rights remained an important feature of the march and a linchpin of the civil rights struggle in the years ahead.
In fact, three years later in 1966, the civil rights movement was the driving force behind a remarkable document that attempted to make the economic justice envisioned by the civil rights movement a reality. This document (which can be found here) was called the Freedom Budget, and it outlined a plan to end poverty and unemployment in the United States within ten years. It is the subject of a new academic book by Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates called A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today.
In an interview this week with Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed, Le Blanc notes that the plan was developed by prominent economists, most notably Leon Keyserling, a left-leaning Keynesian and old New Dealer. In addition, Le Blanc says, it was “endorsed by over 200 prominent academics, religious leaders, trade unionists, and civil rights figures.” Le Blanc emphasizes just how deeply important the principle of economic justice was to Dr. King and his work:
Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech cannot be comprehended unless we understand it as the culmination of a March for Jobs and Freedom, linking economic justice with racial justice. From his college days in the late 1940s until his death in 1968, King was deeply committed to overcoming poverty and economic exploitation no less than to overcoming racism. He came to see the struggles to overcome economic and racial oppression as inseparable. In addressing the AFL-CIO convention in 1961, he repeated something he had emphasized more than once over the years — projecting “a dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”
In his preface to the summary version of the Freedom Budget in 1966, King argued that “there is no way merely to find work, or adequate housing, or quality-integrated schools for Negroes alone.” In his explanation of the Freedom Budget’s meaning, he underscored the underlying assumptions animating the organizers of the 1963 March: “We shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettos and build new cities for all. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all.” This was part of the meaning of the assertion in his “I Have a Dream” speech that many whites “have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
In 2013, it’s jarring to realize just how much of Dr. King’s dream remains unrealized. For example, take these sobering statistics, from a recent Economic Policy Institute report by Algernon Austin:
[T]oday, nearly half of poor black children live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty; however, only a little more than a tenth of poor white children live in similar neighborhoods.
In the late 1960s, 76.6 percent of black children attended majority black schools. In 2010, 74.1 percent of black children attended majority nonwhite schools.
From the 1960s to today, the black unemployment rate has been about 2 to 2.5 times the white unemployment rate. In 2012, the black unemployment rate was 14.0 percent, 2.1 times the white unemployment rate (6.6 percent) and higher than the average national unemployment rate of 13.1 percent during the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1939.
Trends in wealth inequality look even worse. According to Census data, the median white household has a shocking 22 times as much wealth as the median black household — a gap that doubled during the Great Recession.
Scott McLemee, who interviewed Le Blanc, asked him why he and his co-author wrote the Freedom Budget book. This, in part, is what he said:
Michael Yates and I are inspired by the better, more abundant, more democratic future that the Freedom Budget was reaching for. We believe such a future could be possible, and that a growing number of people — given the multiple crises afflicting our society and world — will be looking for how we might get to such a better future. Changes in the world over the past four decades necessitate, we think, a new version of the Freedom Budget, and we offer some thought about what this might look like.
Certainly, looking at today’s dystopic jobless economy, the Freedom Budget’s vision of a full-employment economy seems not only like a good idea, but a deeply necessary one. Sometimes we need to go back to the past to re-invent the future. The Freedom Budget would be an excellent place to start. To paraphrase what someone once wrote, a political movement’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?