By Past President Joanie Cameron Pritchett
Fifty years ago this week, we watched a man tell the world about his dream.
300,000 people from all over America came to Washington, DC on August 28, 1963 for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial to talk about his vision of a better future.
Although King was the standout highlight from the day, literally thousands of people were involved in organizing the event, many of them from the labour movement. Two of the main organizers included A. Philip Randolph, Vice-President of the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organizations), and Bayard Rustin, a socialist and later gay rights activist.
Speaking that day was Walter Reuther, then President of the United Auto Workers, who discussed the historical mission of the labour movement in fighting for equal rights, not only for workers, but all people, regardless of their race. Reuther believed that ending discrimination should be a primary goal of workers and unions throughout America.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover referred to the event participants as “trade union activists, socialists and rabble rousers”
…You’re damn right they were, Mr. Hoover.
Ensuring the success of the March was an enormous challenge. Just getting to the event, especially for participants from the Deep South, was difficult. The FBI and Justice Department refused to provide security for bus travelers from the region who feared violent attacks by racists. At the same time, tens of thousands throughout the country couldn’t afford bus tickets to be in Washington DC that day.
And within 24 hours of the March, the sound system, which then cost $16,000, or $118,000 today, was sabotaged by provocateurs. Organizers had to ask then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to order the U.S. Army Signal Corps, who worked on it throughout the night into the early morning, to repair the system.
The March also did not take place without opposition. Several politicians, as well as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, referred to the participants as “trade union activists, socialists and rabble rousers.”
You’re damn right they were, Mr. Hoover.
After all, this was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Among the official goals of the event, besides civil and equal rights for all Americans, was a program of public works, job training for the unemployed, broadening the Fair Labor Standards Act, the establishment of full employment, and increasing the minimum wage to $2 an hour, or $10.25 in today’s dollars, to help lift millions out of poverty.
As many of the organizers believed, no society can talk about real equality and freedom without recognizing workers’ rights and economic fairness.
The event’s influence on civil and equal rights was enormous – and immediate. Most historians credit the March with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet other demands of the March still haven’t been met, and there’s a long road to travel before we realize Dr. King’s dream of true racial – and economic – equality in America.
Deeply engrained in his vision was a society where workers were treated with dignity and respect, and never had to worry about poverty. It is important to remember that King marched alongside unions on strike dozens of times, and lent his support to workers of all colours throughout the country.
In front of the Lincoln Memorial that day, he reminded America – and the world – that poverty among plenty is wholly antithetical to a free and democratic society.
“We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” he said. “We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
And with the world watching, Dr. King finished his speech with those wonderful words:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character… I have a dream today!”
Looking back fifty years later, we know that unions and working people have played a vital role, and will continue to do so, in making that dream of a just and democratic society a reality for people everywhere.