As most of us were told in school, fifty years ago a great man made a great speech in front of a bunch of people. And then Black people everywhere were saved and racism ended (or this is the impression we got). Many of us received some variation of that abbreviated lesson early on in our educations. We might have known about separate water fountains. We may have heard of the Strange Fruit of lynchings and the lethal domestic terrorist violence committed against Black men, women, and children. Maybe we’ve heard of segregated lunch counters and schools and the brave young men and women who endured taunting, intense bullying, and intimidation and violence.
It was on the Washington Mall in late August of 1963 that Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a momentous speech that helped to change the tenor of the struggle for equality and of the nation. “I Have a Dream” reinvigorated the crowd of weary and tired and literally beat justice workers who sacrificed so much for this country just by being born into inequality, and into a system that considered them to be virtual slaves without the benefits of citizenship – one hundred years after the end of legalized chattel slavery. It also changed how a lot of White Americans came to perceive their Black counterparts.
However, we make a habit of idolizing both King and that speech, effectually freezing them in carbonite like a petty Hutt. The larger messages of the march and the speeches, demonstrations, and work (of the organizers and key figures as well as the work of all of those foot soldiers and mobilizers, preachers, secretaries, students, nannies, doctors, servants, custodians, sanitation workers, writers, reporters, cooks…) or the entire Black Civil Rights movement is often thought of as a footnote – an aside for February – or an appropriation for our own pet issues without recognition of the depth of that struggle and its people itself. This is a convenient way of reducing and freezing history to the past – to a curiosity for the passive observer of oddities – rather than using it as a tool of power for the actively engaged participant in liberation. It’s better that way for the Powers That Be.
But the dimensions of the march and the tremendous struggles and issues surrounding the Civil Rights movement are limited and entrapped in this and most tellings. Maybe, maybe we heard that hundreds of thousands of people were marching to put some needed pressure on legislators to pass the Civil Rights Act and the (newly mangled) Voting Rights Act. Yet it wasn’t until recently that the title of the march, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, became clear to me. It wasn’t until the other day that I even realized that it was the president of a segregated labor union, A. Phillip Randolph of the Negro American Labor Council, that teamed together with Bayard Rustin to dream and lead this massive event. Even today, it is significant that such a key figure of the march was a union leader fighting for the rights of the working person, and it is significant that the unions were segregated.
The set of goals that the organizers (including King, Randolph, and the heads of Congress of Racial Equality, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [headed by now famed US Rep and former Freedom Rider John Lewis], the NAACP, and the National Urban League) proposed were to enact and protect anti-discriminatory civil rights on a national and state-wide frame and to secure economic rights for the poor – particularly people of color. In fact, the two sets of goals were and are very much linked together with, for example, denial of federal funds for programs that did not practice fair hiring practices. Goals included not just “passage of meaningful civil rights legislation” and “an immediate ban on school segregation,” but also focused on “a program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed,” and “a (livable) $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide.”
In the beginning of the 21st century, it is important to note that civil rights laws are being plundered by the SCOTUS and state governments, that schools are functionally if not legally segregated (Exhibit A: Chicago), that public works are actually declining as government services are increasingly becoming privatized and “profitized,” and that the minimum wage is still nowhere near livable.
The March for Jobs and Freedom should be recognized for what it can teach us in our context now. Obviously, with the Voting Rights Act being (unceremoniously, I must add) mangled, we see a need to reinvigorate the fight for political and civil rights for people of color (and women) in the United States.
But we must also continue to fight for economic justice as well. The disparities between what men earn and what women earn – in terms of both side-by-side comparisons and real averages – is absolutely staggering, but especially so if we consider the intersections of people of color. For instance, based on the median income in 1970, for every dollar (1.00) white men were making, black men were making 0.69, while white women were making 0.59 and black women were making a staggering 0.48. (Latinos were not counted for another five years, where they would make, for the men and women respectively, 0.72 and 0.49.) By 2010, white and black females have seen raises of 20% from where they were before – to 0.805 and 0.696, respectively – while black males have risen a mere 6 cents, the average Latina’s wages have risen about ten cents, and male Latinos have – perhaps not shockingly since losing the downfall of Latino/Chicano unions – actually lost six cents. NPR has similar figures, but from different sources.
The trend is clear: Damned if you are a woman, damned if you are of color, but doubly damned if you’re both!
The trend is even more troubling when viewed through unemployment and poverty. According to the Chicago Reader, in 1960 Chicago, the median income for Black families was $4,800 while $7,700 for whites. While the disparity is glaring, it has only gotten worse as the rate has dropped to 1:2; $29,371 for African American families and $58,752 for White families. The poverty rate has increased for both White and Black people, with nearly 30% and 7.4% of black and white families qualifying as impoverished in 1960, and 34.1% and 10.9% now.
That is: More than one out of ten White Chicago families live below the poverty rate – which, in itself, is despicably sad for any city in the richest nation in the world. Yet more than one out of three Black Chicago families lives below the poverty level.
There are many striking and appalling figures about the intersections of racism and sexism in regards to wage justice and inequality – and many begin at home. Boys tend to get paid more than girls on average for doing household chores. What’s more fascinating is that boys are paid disproportionately more for doing less – with 14-15 year old boys making an annual average of $400 a year and girls earning $266. Often, boys are paid substantially more for doing work deemed to be “women’s work” (you know, like dishes and setting the table). Salon reports that boys also work two fewer hours per week while earning and saving more, and that the jobs that males are given tend to be less domestic while viewed as more important.
The patriarchal rubs on females – often the primary providers for families in poverty – is striking, for it’s an attack on families in addition to an attack on half of humanity. Coupled together with what Michelle Alexander rightfully dubs the New Jim Crow and immigration issues that tear migrating Latino families apart, and we have anything but economic justice for women or people of color (let alone women of color).
The legacy of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom needs to be recognized, thawed out, and set loose upon all the halls and malls of power. We need jobs and justice, and we need them now.
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