by Howie Hawkins
On Labor Day, it is once again an appropriate time to ask the questions we asked leading up to the Aug. 27 community forum in Syracuse on the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.
Why progress on civil rights and economic justice stalled and reversed since the demands of the 1963 March on Washington were made?
Organized by the Syracuse Greens, the community forum was entitled, "The Unfinished March: Where Do We Go From Here?" Southern civil rights movement veterans Colia Clark and Rev. LeRoy Glenn Wright and a Teamster leader in black and left labor organizations, Chris Silvera, offered their perspectives at the forum, followed by an open discussion.
I will give my answer to the question below, but first let's review at the facts of stall and reversal on the economic and civil rights demanded by the 1963 March.
THE RIGHT TO VOTE 1963 – Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. 2013 – U.S. Supreme Court strikes down key provisions of to the 1965 Voting Rights Act on June 25. Several states immediately enact laws to suppress voting.
THE RIGHT TO A JOB 1963 – A federal program to guarantee the right to a job. Unemployment is 5.4%. Black/White Unemployment Ratio: 2.2 to 1 2013 – A full employment program has not even been considered in Congress since the 1970s. Unemployment is 16.2% (counting involuntary part-timers). Black/White Unemployment Ratio: 2.1 to 1.
THE RIGHT TO LIVING WAGES 1963 – A $2 minimum wage, or $15.27 in August 2013 dollars. 2013 – A $7.25 federal minimum wage.
THE RIGHT TO QUALITY INTEGRATED SCHOOLS 1963 – 76.6% of black children in majority black schools. Black majority schools get less funding. 2013 – 74.1% of black children in majority black schools. Black majority schools still get less funding.
While I heard a few references to the need for jobs, higher wages, and good schools, unlike the 1963 March, no demands were made on the federal government by the recent 50th Anniversary commemorations in Washington DC. Instead of demands on the government, Democratic leaders were put on the podium. At the Labor Day March today at the New York State Fair, none of the speakers, among the Democratic office holders, even referenced the 1963 March or raised any demands.
I think the reason progress stalled and began to reverse in the 1970s is that the movement has been co-opted into the Democratic Party, one of the two wings of the ruling two-corporate-party system. The progressive movement stopped speaking and acting for itself independently of the two-corporate-party system and the organized labor bureaucrats since the 1963 March.
In 1963, the dynamic was very different. The initiative and power came from outside the two parties and the labor bureaucracy. A. Philip Randolph, the principal conceiver, and Bayard Rustion, the principal organizer, of the 1963 March on Washington built that march by relying on their independent organizational bases, namely, the Socialist Party and the black trade union movement, principally Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, but also importantly the black workers' organizations in other unions, notably the Packinghouse and Autoworkers unions.
To implement the economic demands of the 1963 March on Washington, Randolph led the formulation of a Freedom Budget issued in 1966 to show how Congress could enact full employment, living wages, decent housing for all, universal health care, and integrated quality education for all children.
But then the movement split. Randolph and Rustin chose to rely on the Democratic Party, then in control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency, to implement the Freedom Budget. Despite decades of anti-war activism -- Randolph was imprisoned like Debs for opposing World War I, Rustin was imprisoned for refusing to serve in a segregated Army in World War II -- they refrained from opposing the escalating Vietnam War in order to maintain ties to the Democratic leadership they were counting on. It turned out that the War on Poverty was lost in Vietnam.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and others maintained their independence from the two parties and spoke out and organized against the war. King's Poor People's Campaign in 1968 was conceived as a means of winning the Freedom Budget economic demands by independent nonviolent direct action. King intended to direct the unfocused anger of inner city rioting into disciplined nonviolent disruption of business as usual in Washington DC until the economic demands were met.
Unfortunately, after King's assassination, the broader progressive movement turned away from nonviolent direct action and political independence and largely entered the Democratic Party. No significant progressive economic programs have been adopted since that turn to the Right. Instead, the neoliberal agenda of union busting and low wages, deregulation, privatization, regressive taxation, and trade pacts that enable corporate offshoring has characterized the economic policies of both corporate parties since the 1970s. Wages and living conditions have worsened for the working class majority in America since their peak in the early 1970s.
If working people are going to start winning progressive reforms again, we are going to have to start speaking and acting for ourselves, in elections and on the streets, independently of both the corporate parties and the Democratic lap dogs at the top of the labor bureaucracy.
If you want to read more about what I've discussed here, I suggest the following:
Economic Policy Institute's analysis of where we are on the economic demands of the march, "The Unfinished March:" http://www.epi.org/publication/unfinished-march-overview/
Final Organizing Manual of the 1963 March (with sponsors, call, and demands): http://www.crmvet.org/docs/moworg2.pdf
Two articles on how the 1963 march was organized outside the 2-party system and the AFL-CIO largely by black democratic socialists affiliated with the Socialist Party and predominantly black trade unions: http://prospect.org/article/socialists-who-made-march-washington http://www.labornotes.org/2013/08/how-black-unionists-organized-1963-march-jobs-and-freedom
On Randolph/Rustin/King post-march effort to get Congress to pass programs to realize the economic demands:
Paul LeBlanc and Michael Yates, “Toward a New Freedom Budget: The Day After the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom," CounterPunch, Aug. 16, 2013, http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/08/16/the-day-after-the-march-on-washington-for-jobs-and-freedom/
Martin Luther King, Jr. on the consequences of de facto school segregation, speaking at Syracuse University, 1965, excerpted in this Post-Standard column by Sean Kirst with the link to the full speech included: http://www.syracuse.com/kirst/index.ssf/2013/08/president_obama_in_syracuse_a.html
Bill Fletcher on how black labor and economic demands were central to the 1963 march: http://zinnedproject.org/2013/08/the-1963-march-on-washington/
An inteview with Paul LeBlanc that discusses the split between Randolph and Rustin on one side and King on the other concerning Vietnam and independence from the Democrats: www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/08/21/interview-paul-le-blanc-freedom-budget-all-americans#ixzz2csEU4cqm
A co-founder of the Clamshell Alliance and the Green Party, Howie Hawkins is a Teamster from Syracuse, New York.