March on Washington: What We Want

A look at the demands of 1963 and 2013 shows the nation is still far from providing equality for all.

Bayard Rustin addressing the crowd at the March on Washington (WITF)
Bayard Rustin addressing the crowd at the March on Washington (WITF)

(The Root) — Listen to talk radio, peruse the front page of the nation’s major news sites and covers of the big magazines this week, and the 1963 March on Washington occupies a lot of real estate.

There are the stories and images of a peaceful gathering of Americans committed to nothing beyond calling for social justice and legal equality. There are the tales of how a spontaneous suggestion from Mahalia Jackson or some unseen divine source inspired Martin Luther King Jr.’s evocative, largely ad-libbed speech. And then there are the apocryphal yarns that recast the march as an event so righteous that people across the political spectrum — both then and now — supported its architects and their goals. 

But among the most critical details often left out of the nation’s tidy and affirming remembrances of the 1963 March on Washington is the 10-point list (pdf) of social, political and economic demands the event’s organizers dubbed “What We Demand.” The contents of that list and any fact-based assessment of where the nation stands when measured against it today point to a more complicated story.

Nearly 50 years to the day that hundreds of thousands of people marched to the National Mall in support of those goals, a new list of largely economic and political demands by a collection of major civil rights organizations confirms just how much distance remains in the nation’s long journey toward universal justice and equality.

“The reason we are releasing a new list of demands on the eve of the [2013] march is because we want people to realize that when this march is over, this struggle is not over,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. 

In 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — the event’s full name — wasn’t just about freedom or putting an end to Jim Crow, said Steven F. Lawson, a historian and professor emeritus at Rutgers University, who has written about civil rights and black politics since 1945.

“People tend to forget,” said Lawson, “but it was also about jobs, about demanding an end to a long national history of exclusion, injustice and deprivation that were then an almost mandatory part of being anything other than white and male.”

At the time, the list of demands connected to the march and its organizers was considered so radical, public-safety officials feared the large crowd, Lawson said. In Washington, D.C., officials suspended all alcohol sales for the first time since Prohibition.

The march represented a moment long feared.

Almost a decade had passed since the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of the nation’s public schools in the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education case. But, most students attended racially homogeneous schools where black students continued to learn in sub-par facilities and only had access to white students’ outdated and often bedraggled books. An estimated 10 percent of black Americans were unemployed, a figure twice as high as the number of white Americans unable to find work. Even worse, 48 percent of black Americans lived in poverty, and overwhelming majorities were concentrated at the bottom end of the income ladder, living in low-quality housing or poor neighborhoods.  

So as labor and civil rights activists shaped the 1963 march’s demands, they called on the Kennedy administration and Congress to back a civil rights package that would protect minority-voting rights and individual blacks from an ongoing campaign of domestic terror prosecuted with threats, economic intimidation and sometimes deadly violence. 

They also insisted on a federal commitment to universal employment and job training. The 1963 march organizers wanted to bar programs or institutions that engaged in racial discrimination from receiving federal funds, and called for an outright end to discrimination in housing and employment — both public and private. Bayard Rustin, the march’s architect, read the demands to the large crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial.