It has been 50 years since the iconic March on Washington, but America is still in the midst of a civil rights movement, says William Jones, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In "The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights," Jones offers a new perspective on the 1960s and the profound impact that the march had on economic and social reform. He recently spoke with U.S. News about the goals of the organizers, the consequences of the march, and the potential for today's civil rights and labor movements. Excerpts:
Who were the march organizers, and what were they trying to achieve?
The group that initiated the march was the Negro American Labor Council, which was a network of black union activists in mostly northern cities across the country. Their initial concern was that discrimination in employment and the elimination of low-wage jobs in manufacturing was leading to the rising rate of unemployment among African-American workers. A number of civil rights leaders encouraged them to expand their agenda to embrace the movement in the South – the Southern civil rights movement – and the goals of that movement were to end the legal system of segregation in the South, known as Jim Crow, and to win voting rights for African-Americans in the South. So the primary goal of the march was to link those two. The slogan was "jobs and freedom," and what they meant by that was that they wanted to win access to decent paid jobs, they wanted to raise the minimum wage and create more jobs for all workers, and then they also wanted to end the system of segregation and limits on voting rights in the South.
How radical was this event for its time?
Many of the nonviolent civil rights marches had led to violence primarily because police and law enforcement officials had attacked the marchers. So there was a fear that this would result in violence. So the tactic of a mass demonstration was controversial at the time, but also its demands were controversial. They were calling for very strong federal enforcement of equal access to voting rights [and] for desegregation of restaurants and public transportation. They were calling for laws prohibiting private employers and unions from discriminating against people on the basis of race. They were also calling for really significant increases in the minimum wage [and] federal job creation programs, all of which were seen as controversial policies. I think even now they remain controversial.
What's a common misconception about the event?
I think, over time, people have forgotten the full extent of the march's objectives. We've focused very narrowly on Martin Luther King [Jr.]'s speech, which was one of 10 speeches at the march that day. And, as a result, I think we've lost sight of its broader objectives.
What were the consequences of the march?
The biggest impact was [the] call for strong federal policies enforcing racial equality and ensuring equal access to jobs. Two months before the march, President [John F.] Kennedy went on national television and called for a civil rights bill, and he proposed a relatively weak bill aimed at ensuring equal access to accommodations and protecting voting rights. And the goal of the march was to pass that bill, but also to strengthen it and expand its reach significantly. So they demanded much stronger provisions to uphold access to public accommodations, to enforce the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education [Supreme Court] decision banning segregated schools, to protect the right to vote. And each of these was implemented through what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I think the most important addition to those laws was Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited private employers and unions from discriminating against workers on the basis of their race, their color, their religion, their national origin or their sex. This provision was not in the original bill that Kennedy had proposed.
Are there still significant civil rights and labor movements today?
There is a significant civil rights movement in some ways with the same organizations that made up the civil rights movement in the 1960s. There's also a significant labor movement, although it's much weaker than it was in the 1960s. It's hard to say where they're going to go, but I've been thinking about the parallels. In the 1960s, these movements were very weak and sporadic, and nobody knew where they were going to go. And I think the March on Washington was a very successful event that brought movements that were largely unknown and leaders who were largely unknown to national prominence and allowed them to have an impact on federal policy in a way that I don't think anybody could've predicted just a few years before that.
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