Betraying the March ; That 'I Have a Dream' Day Was Aimed at Economic Justice - Not Simply Desegregation

Article excerpt

The 40th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech calls forth countless accolades and commemorations.

Yet this week's celebratory deluge obscures the real story of the march far more than it illuminates it. While the march of course merits praise as one of great civil rights landmarks in American history, its actual legacy is a less happy story than most accounts acknowledge. Indeed, a good argument can be made that much of black America, as well as many white liberals, betrayed the march's real ideals even before the decade of the 1960s had run its course.

On the day it took place, the 1963 march was recognized as a huge popular boost for the antidiscrimination legislation that President Kennedy had put before Congress two months earlier. But the original purpose of the march, as articulated by its primary creators, activists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, was to transform the civil rights agenda into "a broad and fundamental program of economic justice," not simply to energize opponents of racial segregation.

Randolph and Rustin saw economic change as far more integral than desegregation. "Integration in the fields of education, housing, transportation, and public accommodations will be of limited extent and duration so long as fundamental economic inequality along racial lines persists," Rustin asserted in a pre-march memo. King embraced that emphasis, too, telling reporters in mid-July that the purpose of the march was to "arouse the conscience of the nation over the economic plight of the Negro."

But even well before Aug. 28, 1963, the march's actual name - the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom - was already overshadowed by the perception that the one-day demonstration would be a rally on behalf of Kennedy's civil rights bill rather than a protest against government policies that disadvantaged African-Americans. Then, on Aug. 28, when King's remarkable "dream" speech swamped all other aspects of the day's events, public acknowledgment of the march's actual objective diminished even further.

Yet even in the wake of the hugely successful gathering, Rustin sought to keep the original economic agenda from being lost. He argued that civil rights proponents should highlight how "the roots of discrimination are economic." Only a political alliance between civil rights forces and the labor movement, Rustin thought, could pursue successfully the march's real goals.

In the years after the march, Randolph, Rustin, and King sought to advance transformative economic programs. Rustin and Randolph put forward an ambitious "Freedom Budget" - a proposal for improving the lives of America's poor and dramatically increasing their incomes that made President Johnson's rhetorically uplifting "War on Poverty" look miserly. …