The full title of the historic event whose 50th anniversary is being celebrated today was "The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." The organizers and those who spoke on this extraordinary day knew that the attainment of equal rights by blacks began with changing minds and writing legislation, but it also meant providing economic opportunities as well. And in doing so, economically disadvantaged white workers would benefit as well.
The 1963 March on Washington is remembered best, and understandably so, for Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, in which he memorably shared his vision of an America in which blacks and whites lived together in peace. Civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin had long argued in their speeches and writings that providing more economic opportunities for blacks would, by enabling them to abandon dependence on government and become taxpayers, benefit the economy as a whole.
It was Mr. Randolph who tapped Mr. Rustin to organize the March on Washington in less than two months, a formidable task he succeeded in accomplishing, and their involvement assured that jobs would be front and center that day. Mr. Rustin was chosen to read the 10 demands of the march participants, most of which involved the passage of laws protecting civil rights for minorities and ending discriminatory practices against minorities.
Significantly, one demand was for the institution of a federal program to train all workers, both black and white, for "meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages." Those programs have been created, though their success rises and wanes with federal funding. Another demand was for a national minimum wage act that "will give all Americans a decent standard of living." That act was passed into law, and the need to raise the minimum wage is now being debated at both the Massachusetts and federal levels.
Mr. Rustin, who was thrown out of two colleges for being gay, was twice victimized for his color and for his homosexuality. When racist former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina attacked Mr. Rustin for being a "pervert" in the days leading up to the march there was talk among organizers of removing him from the podium. Mr. Randoph insisted he remain, however, but while Mr. Rustin retained his high-profile role at the march, his star dimmed over the following years as Dr. King's shone brighter.
Mr. Rustin, who died in 1987 at the age of 75, spent his last years campaigning for gay rights and for government assistance in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Recognition for his achievements came late but it did slowly build, and on August 8 of this month he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama. Like all of the great civil rights leaders, Mr. Rustin was a humanitarian who wanted people from every race to enjoy peace, freedom and the fruits of their labors. All Americans owe him, A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights veterans of that extraordinary era, a huge debt.