August 28, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a seminal moment in the struggle for Civil Rights. Activities and commemorations are planned, including the airing of a new documentary, The March, on PBS tonight (August 27, 9:00 p.m.). The documentary is a stark reminder of how far we’ve come and what we owe to the men and women who spent months planning the march.
Which begs the question, what do we owe? If you have ever been thankful that you can’t be fired from your job simply because you are aging, you owe something to the March. If you have ever taken for granted your right to work as a woman, a person of color, or someone with a disability, you owe something to the March. If you came to this country for the opportunities afforded immigrants and people of different ethnicities, you owe something to the March. If you have looked forward with expectation to the birth of your child and with relief to the prospect of still having a job after having your child, you owe something to the March. If you believe in the right to work, the right to support your family in a job of your choosing, you owe something to the March.
The March on Washington was not a random event, a spontaneous gathering of Americans decrying segregation and crying for freedom. Instead, as the documentary explains, it was an intentional, well-organized effort to force Congress to adopt the Civil Rights Act, which had been proposed by John F. Kennedy in June 1963. Kennedy’s proposal would have ended segregation in public facilities and expanded voting rights, but it still would have permitted segregation in private (in other words, non-government) employment. Civil Rights leaders recognized that without the right to work, there can be no equality and no freedom, and they mobilized to demand full equality.
Today we take that right to work for granted; we expect to be hired and rewarded and retained based on merit. But the reality is that the right to work is still a fragile one for many Americans. Millions of Americans are reduced to jobs that don’t pay a living wage – they work two jobs or more and still are unable to support their families on minimum wage. The use of criminal records checks in employment screening shuts millions more out of the job market. An arrest, even if never convicted or dismissed, can stay on your record and result in being passed over for a job. (And when you consider that African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to be stopped, arrested, and jailed for the same activities as white Americans, it’s obvious that we haven’t achieved true equality.) Women are still paid less than men for doing the same job, even though in 40% of the homes in the United States, women are the sole or primary earner.
At the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I have a dream speech.” In it, he proclaimed that, “We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until ‘justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ We have come so far and we owe so much — are we satisfied? Not when we still have so far to go.