Throughout this summer, people have been preparing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The march itself—which was organized by the labor and civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Bayard Rustin—represented a singular landmark in the continuing struggle for racial equality and civil rights.
Most people remember the march as the occasion for Dr. Martin Luther Kings Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, a speech that has stirred the conscience of the entire nation for generations and spurred us on to fight for equal rights for all.
What people may tend to forget is that the official name of the march was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Throughout his life, a prominent and consistent part of King’s message was that creating good jobs and fighting poverty were crucial components of the Civil Rights Movement, and the 1963 march itself was an extension of that belief. In fact, among the demands listed in the event’s program were good jobs for all unemployed workers, an increased minimum wage and a broadening of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Since 1963, we have made great steps toward eliminating many of the elements of discrimination that defined daily life. But a key part of the promise of that August day remains unfulfilled. People who may have obtained their legal rights while still being forced to live in poverty are still denied justice.
In New York—the state with the nation’s greatest economic inequality between rich and poor—we’ve seen economic policies that have contributed to a cycle that has kept many of our communities mired in poverty. We’ve allowed taxpayer money to create jobs that not only make it harder for New York’s working people to thrive, but also make it a daily struggle for many families to survive.
There can be no true equality when working people are not able to earn the resources they need to survive. Too many of them are forced to choose between keeping the lights on and putting food on the table.
What can we do about it? Economic development policies throughout New York need to focus on creating strong jobs with higher pay that will become a foundation for stronger communities—jobs that can help working people build better lives for themselves and their families.
We need to attach labor standards to all development projects, ensuring that the jobs they create pay better wages that can help more workers enter the middle class. And these jobs need to guarantee that workers have the right to freely organize in unions without employer interference or intimidation so that they can join together with a collective voice to make their jobs better.
Toward the end of his life, King was working to put together another massive march in Washington, D.C., this time to put the spotlight on joblessness, poverty and economic depravation. And on the day he died, King was in Memphis to fight for the rights of striking sanitation workers to have a living wage. Now is the time for economic development policies that will help raise low-wage workers and help move us closer toward realizing King’s dream of economic and social justice for all.