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)

“This was a big, bold list of demands because we were living in a country with vast and utterly insurmountable inequalities,” said Bernard Anderson, an economist and former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Labor and chair of the National Urban League’s Council of Economic Advisers.

But today, black America’s needs — in civil rights and in economic and social inclusion — remain so profound that National Urban League’s Morial, NAACP President and CEO Ben Jealous and National Action Network’s the Rev. Al Sharpton called for a summit of social-justice activists, community organizers, urban redevelopment and health advocates in December 2012, just weeks after Obama secured his second term. The ideas that emerged evolved into a new list of demands that will be released by the organizations on Friday (August 23).

President Barak Obama, both a living symbol and product of minority political inclusion, has led the country during a time when core civil rights legislation such as the Voting Rights Act has suffered major blows, Anderson said. In the months since, voting-rights advocates and researchers have said repeatedly that proliferation of voter-ID laws and long-standing policies that strip convicted felons of the right to vote will together render millions of black Americans unable to vote in the midterm elections.

The schools that students attend remain largely divided by race and learning resources uneven, said Sharpton, whose National Action Network helped to organize the march taking place in Washington on Saturday.

Legislatures have put “Stand your ground” laws, policies that critics say have allowed a disproportionate number of white shooters to go free after killing black victims, on the books in nearly three dozen states. 

And, over the last 50 years, black unemployment has remained at least twice as high as the share of jobless white Americans, Anderson said. In fact, in 2012, the annual black unemployment rate sat just above 13 percent, despite significant gains in black high school and college-completion rates in the years since the 1963 March on Washington.

On the list of demands dubbed the 21st Century Agenda for Jobs and Freedom: policies that make economic, educational and political parity for African Americans an actual possibility; a federal policy that will protect and secure minority-voting rights; wholesale reforms in the criminal-justice system; and the elimination of racial health care disparities.

For Morial, a former mayor and longtime veteran of civil rights activism, the idea that the nation’s major civil rights organizations could work together to develop a single list of demands is a major victory. It’s also something that he knows will unduly frighten and outrage some corners of America.

“If people can take a deep breath and think for just a moment before they get outraged about a black agenda, the reality in American politics is everybody has an agenda,” said Morial. 

“The NRA has an agenda. The chamber of commerce has an agenda,” he said. “Coca-Cola has an agenda. The LGBT community, the immigrant community, the historical preservationists … the animal-rights activists and the environmentalists, they all have an agenda. There’s no secret about that.”

And like every political agenda, the document released by the civil rights groups today will have little meaning if it does not ultimately become public policy, Morial said.

Janell Ross is a reporter in New York who covers political and economic issues. She is working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due to be published by Beacon Press next year. Follow her on Twitter.