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March on Washington: What We Want

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.

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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.

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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."

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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.  

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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.

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"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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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"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."

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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. 

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