William P. Jones

The Moment newsletter

Published — September 3, 2020

The March on Washington, then and now?

William P. Jones (Lisa Miller)


Welcome to The Moment. I’m Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.

Before today’s interview, an invitation. Join Public Integrity and the SNCC Legacy Project for a timely conversation about protecting the vote in Election 2020. Register for the Sept. 9 virtual panel discussion at the end of the newsletter.

Last week’s March on Washington built on the tradition of the original 1963 march known for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. But the recent event occurred in a different context than the historic mobilization for jobs and freedom 57 years ago. Yet similarities and parallels exist, says William P. Jones, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and author of “The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights.”

The 1963 march had its roots in the Black labor movement. Demands for jobs and economic opportunity have long been part of the civil rights agenda, Jones says. Today, in the context of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic and calls for racial justice, Jones says those demands take on greater urgency.

And now a moment with William P. Jones…

*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

The 1963 March on Washington and the march last week happened in very different political contexts. What are those differences and their significance?

I think there are important differences. I also think there are important similarities worth paying attention to. We’re in a very different political context. One of the goals of the March on Washington was to push President John F. Kennedy, who was fairly supportive of the sort of broad general goals of the movement, although he was never really an enthusiastic ally of the civil rights movement. He was seen as somebody who could be pushed toward those goals. On the other hand, we now have a president in Donald Trump who’s pretty much opposed to many of the goals and the demands of the march.  We’re also in an election year. 1963 was not an election year, and therefore the focus was less on an immediate election and more on a legislative goal than a legislative agenda.

Protesters gather on the National Mall to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech and continue to call for criminal justice reform on Friday. (Joe Wertz/Center for Public Integrity)

There are important differences, but there are also important similarities [between the marches]. Perhaps most striking for me is the way in which a few particular acts of racist violence have focused national and international attention on the problems of racial inequality. That’s what occurred most pointedly with the killing of George Floyd and more recently with the shooting of Jacob Blake. The parallel in 1963 was the attacks on protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, images that many of us are still aware of — the dogs attacking protesters, fire hoses being turned on protesters. This turned attention to the demands of the movement in a way that made it hard to avoid. In the wake of those scenes and images, President Kennedy came out and demanded a civil rights act that he had actually been reluctant to do before. The fact that he was forced to address [the issue] by those scenes is similar to what happened with the video of George Floyd and the video of Jacob Blake’s shooting. 

I want to go back to your book and the labor roots of the first planned March on Washington organized by A. Philip Randolph in 1941. Why is that history important today in the context of the coronavirus and this moment of reckoning about racial justice?

People who are classified as essential workers, either because they are health care workers or retail workers, have a very high level of exposure [to the coronavirus]. In all of these categories, African Americans have among the highest rates in these jobs.

These issues in many ways are very closely and intimately linked to the problems that the march on Friday, the 57th anniversary march, was trying to address. George Floyd was very emblematic of this. He was somebody who worked in a service position. He apparently had contracted and recovered from COVID-19 when he was killed by the police. And he lost his job due to the coronavirus and was arrested for passing a counterfeit bill, which is an economic crime, a crime of poverty. He really exemplifies the ways in which the economic issues related to the coronavirus and longstanding institutional racism are really deeply interconnected with the issues of police brutality and violence that the march was really focused on. … As I point out in the book, going back to the long history of the march, starting in 1941, the demand for jobs and the demand for access to decent, well-paid jobs has been at the center of the civil rights movement since its beginning.

Has the 1963 March on Washington become a way of measuring the nation’s progress toward racial justice? Is it a benchmark of sorts?

I think it does. Everybody marches on Washington. It’s become a dominant form, a routine form of national protest.

It is important to remember what the reality of the march was. People often will go back and say, “This is what Martin King said.” Probably the most famous line, “the content of our character,” gets thrown out over and over again, as if that were the sole expression of what the civil rights movement was, what the goals of the march were. It’s particularly important that we remember that King’s speech was the last of the speeches. It was a rallying cry to send people riled up and inspired to keep fighting after a long day of marching and riding on buses and trains. So, it was not actually the one that we should look to to understand the goals of the march. We should look at A. Philip Randolph’s speech or to the printed demands of the march.

If we were to go back and measure our progress, we might go and look at the fact that they were actually asking to raise the minimum wage to what today is the equivalent of $15 an hour.  They were actually asking for a federal jobs program that would end unemployment. They felt that the government should not allow anybody who wants the job to be without a job. They wanted to make sure that everybody who had a job has a right to a minimum wage and the right to a union, to the ability to join a union. … Why, over 57 years later, do we still not have these things? If we were to look at the actual demands of the march, I think it would actually serve as a better gauge to track how far we have not come from that moment.

William’s must reads:

The 1619 Project” – The New York Times award-winning series examines the legacy of slavery in America.

Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide” by Lane Windham – The book examines how combining labor and civil rights laws improved the prospects for thousands of workers in the 1970s.

The 1963 March on Washington digital archive at the Library of Congress includes the demands and other printed material from the historic march.

Join me on Wednesday, Sept. 9, for a conversation about voter suppression with a panel you don’t want to miss — LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund; Judy Richardson, a producer of the award-winning series on the civil rights movement “Eyes on the Prize”; and Sonia Jarvis, a professor whose work focuses on race, politics and media. Our virtual panel discussion kicks off at 5:30 p.m. EDT on Crowdcast. Register now.

Thanks for reading The Moment. What questions do you want to explore? Send them to me at ssmithrichardson@publicintegrity.org. Until next time.

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