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MLK Meditation #1: His First March on Washington and Why We Can’t Wait

The conversation around Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” demonstration and Dr. King’s legacy has provoked much thought about Dr. King, the Civil Rights Movement, and its implications for our current moment. This is the first of a few meditations on Dr. King that I will post in the next few days.

MLK Meditation #1: His First March on Washington and Why We Can’t Wait

–Austin McCoy

While it is true that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington represents one of the most iconic moments in American history, we obscure its meanings and actual goals. We use King’s speech, or at least a few remarks from it, to interpret the event (and by extension, a whole movement) as a collective protest against Southern racism. Yet, when one examines the historical record and scholarship written on the subject, one learns that King intended the march “to arouse the conscience of the nation over the economic plight of the Negro” (Quoted in Garrow, 284). Right, the march was not just about decent treatment or civil rights narrowly defined as individual rights, or equal opportunity. Organizers saw the march as one for freedom and jobs—for civil and economic rights. In fact, the march’s two principal organizers—black labor leader, A. Phillip Randolph, and black gay political organizer, Bayard Rustin—conceived of the march as a collective action calling for government intervention into the nation’s economy. The goals of the demonstration included not just the passage of President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill, but also a federal public-works jobs program (Garrow, 284).*

Dr. King also amplified the March’s calls for government intervention in his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait. He suggested a “Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged” to eradicate poverty and he called for the U.S. to construct a real full employment economy. Pointing out the contradictions between wealth and poverty in the U.S., King declared, “The energetic and creative expansion of work opportunities, in both the public and private sectors of the economy, is an imperative worthy of the richest nation on earth, whose abundance is an embarrassment as long as millions of poor are imprisoned and constantly self-renewed within an expanding population (King, Why We Can’t Wait, 139).” King also understood how the links between race and class in the southern slave economy created and sustained white poor populations. King’s thoughts on poverty, race, and class in 1964 actually foreshadowed the Poor People’s Campaign that he and his organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), were planning in 1968.

The March on Washington and Dr. King’s thoughts in Why We Can’t Wait, resonates with our contemporary moment because the organizers concerned themselves with civil/political and economic rights—freedom and jobs. Thanks to a multitude of interrelated factors—our obsession with growth and financial capital/products, capital flight, deindustrialization, economic globalization, a for-profit health insurance system that only cares more about making money and not fulfilling its purpose and a broken political system, some of us have freedom, and maybe even a job (read: low wage and/or part time employment without benefits), in name. Yet Americans run the risk of joining the ranks of the unemployed and impoverished. The unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ latest Employment Situation Summary (August 6, 2010), has remained at a stubborn 9.5% (14.6 million people). Job losses have hit blacks (unemployment rate at 15.6%) and Latinos (12.1%) the hardest when compared to white Americans (8.6%). 8.5 million people remain in part-time employment while 2.6. million have “dropped out” of the labor force. Both the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) and the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) estimated last year that the recession could force more than 1 million people into homelessness.** Yes, Dr. King had a dream, but it seems that many Americans now represent the echoes of a dream deferred. King, Randolph, Rustin and their allies knew that one really did not have freedom if they had little opportunity to earn an adequate living. That’s why we can’t wait. Because, at the end of the day, taking care of oneself, one’s loved ones and each other remains the foundation for achieving a just society. Demanding the rights to a living wage, government insurance of full employment, adequate housing, decent public facilities and spaces (schools, transportation, parks, etc.), and just metropolitan (urban/suburban/rural) development all fall within the aims of the March on Washington in 1963. We can’t wait.

Unfortunately, our obsession with a few phrases from Dr. King’s “Dream” speech obscures these points and Dr. King’s views about poverty, class and racial oppression. If one listened to Glenn Beck, one would think Dr. King calling for a full employment economy, government intervention and defending preferential treatment for black Americans is Dr. King in rare form. But anti-poverty, full employment and the recognition of the relationship between class and racial oppression remained persistent themes in King’s speeches and writings until the end of his life. After placing the March on Washington, King’s “Dream” speech, and Dr. King’s thoughts into context, we realize that those who continue to make demands on the government, Democrats and Republicans, and corporations for economic justice are the ones who really carry the torches lit by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, SNCC, and the Black Panthers. Glenn Beck is just an impostor who has wet dreams about leading a civil rights movement and achieving individual glory.

* The march was not without its shortcomings, however, as male leaders marginalized (black) womens’ concerns and excluded them from speaking at the affair.

Works Cited

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why We Can’t Wait. New York: Mentor, 1963.
David Garrow. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King and the Southern Leadership Conference. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.


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