The March: Scholars Have Their Say

We asked academics to put the 1963 event and this year's commemorations in context.

The March on Washington (Wikimedia Commons)
The March on Washington (Wikimedia Commons)

(The Root) — In the opening line of his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. predicted that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom would “go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

Fifty years on, we now know he was prophetic.

As part of our continuing coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we asked several notable scholars for their take on the day. What, in their opinion, did the 1963 march accomplish? What has been its legacy? And because so many would like to know, we asked: What tangible result would you like to see from this year’s march? 

Below find their fascinating answers, including an assessment of the day’s worldwide impact and a plan from a leading thinker that could help turn Saturday’s march into real results.

William Julius Wilson, Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor, Harvard University 

The famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963, was, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. appropriately pointed out, “the emotional summit of the civil rights movement.” The leaders of the march perceived its goals in different ways, ranging from those who saw it as a dramatic way to support civil rights to those who saw it as a way to focus national attention on economic issues.

In subsequent years some black leaders began to place greater emphasis on economic issues. Thus, in the summer of 1965, when there was widespread displeasure among African Americans regarding their efforts to achieve equality of employment, Martin Luther King Jr. bluntly stated: “What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can’t buy a hamburger?” Black economist Vivian Henderson echoed a similar theme in 1975 by proclaiming that historic racism and discrimination put blacks in a precarious economic situation and then stepped aside to watch changes in the economy, including increasing technology, worsen their economic misery.

The computer revolution rewards skilled workers and displaces low-skilled workers, and the globalization of the economy puts low-skilled workers in this country in greater competition with low-skilled workers in developing countries. So if you don’t have skills or a decent education in this global economy, your chances for mobility are minimal. This is a problem for all low-skilled workers, but it is even more of a problem for low-skilled blacks because of employer racial preferences, not to mention segregation, which decreases access to areas of employment growth. The problem is especially acute for low-skilled black males, and many turn to crime and end up in prison, which further marginalizes them and decreases their employment opportunities.

So in the spirit of the emphasis on jobs and economic opportunity in the 1963 March on Washington, I would strongly recommend legislation to target areas of high unemployment with job-creation strategies, including the creation of public-sector jobs. Such a program would address unemployment not only in, say, black inner-city neighborhoods but also in white, Latino and Asian areas marked by high jobless rates.

I suggest such legislation with few illusions that it can be achieved without stern political opposition, given that Republicans now control the House of Representatives, but with the hope that it will indeed receive serious consideration by members of Congress and the American public in the future, perhaps during President Obama’s second term of office.