Discover more from Footnotes by Jemar Tisby
People Went to the March on Washington to Do More than Hear Some Speeches
They actually had a detailed list of 10 Demands. Read them here.
This is the second in a three-part series commemorating the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28. If you’d like to see more of this content you can support Footnotes by becoming a paid subscriber today!
Most people remember the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for its various speeches, most notably the "I Have a Dream” speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is a frustratingly narrow focus because protestors attended the march to do more than hear a few speeches. They actually had a list of 10 demands that encapsulated the struggle for economic and civil rights at the time.
The emphasis on who was there and what speeches were delivered crowds out the necessary attention on the tangible changes the marchers wanted to see.
Given their demands and the name of the event, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom should be remembered more as a labor protest for economic rights and financial security than as a moral call for a shift in racial attitudes.
It is eery how many of the marchers’ demands till apply today. We could actually hold another March on Washington in 2023 and virtually copy and paste the demands from 1963.
This is not to say that we as a nation have not made any progress. We did get the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the Fair Housing Act (1968), to name just a few that decade.
But many of the demands, especially the economic ones, remain as salient as ever and perhaps even more relevant as financial disparities persist and increase.
Here is an annotated list of the 10 Demands distributed to participants and politicians during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The program for the march began with these words…
The Washington March of August 28th is more than just a demonstration. It was conceived as an outpouring of the deep feeling of millions of white and colored American citizens that the time has come for the government of the United States of America, and particularly for the Congress of that government, to grant and guarantee complete equality in citizenship to the Negro minority of our population.
This introduction sets the tone not only for the march itself, but for the demands subsequently listed.
1. Comprehensive and effective civil rights legislation…
The first demand points to what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. President John F. Kennedy supported such a measure in June 1963 during a televised speech. It represented his most full-throated endorsement of the Civil Right movement and its aims to date.
Passing the act did not happen easily. It took an outpouring of sympathy after the assassination of JFK in November 1963 and prompted a stubborn resistance from right-wing politicians and their allies that has persisted to this day. Still, without the March on Washington, Congress may not have considered passing the act an urgent matter.
2. Withholding of federal funds from discriminatory programs
The marchers insisted that a federal government that gave lip service to racial equality should not give financial support or its business to programs that practiced racial segregation or other forms of racial discrimination. Starving such programs of lucrative federal funds might provide the impetus for change.
3. Desegregation of all school districts in 1963
The Supreme Court had already ruled that racial segregation in public schools was a violation of the 14th Amendment and that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” But schools all over the country, not just the South, opposed racial integration efforts so vigorously, violently, and effectively that marchers had to demand immediate desegregation even though it had been almost a decade since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board.
To be clear, Black people wanted school desegregation not because they desired so badly for their children to sit next to white children in school but because white schools had hoarded the resources necessary for an excellent education. Black people wanted equal access to those public goods.
4. Enforcement of the 14th Amendment
The 14th Amendment, one of the Reconstruction Acts passed after the Civil War, guarantees “birthright citizenship” and equal protection under the law. It was a necessary measure to ensure the rights of Black people.
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Yet nearly a century after its passage, Black people had yet to enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, and the marchers wanted Congress to ensure it was enforced.
5. Executive Order banning discrimination in federal housing
If the government is going to provide housing, the marchers insisted, then it should do so without racial discrimination. At this point, Jim Crow segregation still reigned even in federal efforts to build affordable housing for people. The marchers wanted equal access to all federally-sponsored housing initiatives.
6. Injunctive suits to block constitutional violations
During the Civil Rights movement, southern mayors, sheriffs, city councils, and other bodies frequently issued harsh and targeted rules to prevent civil rights protests and demonstrations. MLK, for instance, was arrested in Birmingham because he violated a hastily passed injunction against demonstrations without a permit (one that the authorities vowed not to grant). The marchers wanted the federal government to have the power to swiftly overturn local injunctions designed to suppress protests and the efforts of Black people to secure their civil and legal rights.
7. Federal Jobs Training and Placement Program
The crisis of unemployment in the Black community was a matter of racial discrimination in labor, but it also had to do with a lack of training and placement. Many Black people had been discriminated against for decades in educational environments. Thus, they did not have the job training or skills to keep up with a technologically changing workplace. The marchers demanded that unemployed people receive job training to equip them for the latest opportunities and that they receive help in finding these new jobs.
8. National Minimum Wage Increase
The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 has not changed since 2009. The Congressional Budget Office reports that “Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 would raise wages of up to 27.3 million workers and lift 1.3 million families out of poverty.” Giving people a wage that allows them to provide for themselves and their dependents is a longstanding demand, and one of the most prominent protests demanding a living wage was the March on Washington.
9. Expanded Fair Labor Standards Act
Originally passed in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), established many of guidelines now considered standard in the workplace. They included instituting a minimum wage, an 8-hour workday and 40-hour work week, overtime pay, and rules against child labor. But the act excluded some professions, namely farming and agriculture work. A large number of such workers were Black sharecroppers in the South trapped in debt peonage or unfairly low-wages. Including a provision about the FLSA in the demands was another way to tackle the economic crisis afflicting Black communities due to racism.
10. Federal Act to bar racial discrimination by the government and employers
In response to pressure from labor leaders and civil rights activists, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had established the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) in 1941 to help prevent racial discrimination by employers. But Southern Congressmen defunded the office and it folded in 1946. By 1963, activists were again demanding federal protections against racial discrimination in all government offices. A government by and for the people, they reasoned, should not partake in racial discrimination.
Critics often allege that protestors do not provide a concrete vision of what they want to change. The 10 Demands issued by the organizers of the March on Washington prove that civil rights activists had clear ideas of what a racially inclusive society would require.
While the events of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom captivate our historical memory, they should never overshadow the list of specific and substantive changes the protestors demanded.
Which demands seem most urgent today? Comment below.
Footnotes by Jemar Tisby is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.