During the 1963 March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said black Americans live “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” On August 28, the most memorable civil rights protest in American history will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Civil rights groups, labor unions and religious organizations organized the march around the theme, “Jobs and Freedom.” Economic concerns were a central component to the civil rights movement and remained a primary concern of King’s, reflected by his last days supporting the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. Of the nine goals laid out by the organizers of the march, four centered specifically on economic issues. The organizers demanded:
- A program of public works, including job training for the unemployed.
- A federal law prohibiting discrimination in hiring.
- A $2 per hour minimum wage nationwide.
- A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include more employment areas.
Half a century later, has there been progress? Although some of the economic goals laid out by the March on Washington organizers have been addressed, economic security is still viewed as a problem in the black community. Black Americans are almost twice as likely to be unemployed and looking for work than whites (11 percent and 6 percent, respectively). Eight-in-ten black Americans say the lack of jobs is a major problem in their communities, compared to 60 percent of white Americans. Black Americans are more than twice as likely to receive food stamps (34 percent) than white Americans (14 percent). Fifty years later, black Americans are more likely than whites to be paid hourly (66 percent vs. 51 percent).
The March on Washington gave momentum to the civil rights movement, which led to the Voting Rights Act and federal involvement to end segregation and unravel aspects of institutionalized racism. However, given the stark economic disparities remaining between black and white Americans, many argue King’s dream remains unfulfilled.