Honor King's legacy and dream: pay workers a living wage

The Rev. Michael Livingston |

Jobs and FreedomWithout the march, there would have been no speech. We remember the speech, but we forget why the crowd marched from the Washington Monument to gather at the Lincoln Memorial. The march was a symbolic journey from the founding father that presided over a nation whose constitution defined the enslaved African as 3/5 of a person to the martyred president who led the nation into a war made inevitable by that very constitution. “Our massive March from the Washington Monument to [the] Lincoln Memorial, our enormous rally at the Memorial, will speak out to Congress and the nation with a single voice-for jobs and freedom, now.” The official title of the event that was the occasion for The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  Four of the six demands of the march were:

  • A massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.
  • A national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living. (Government surveys show that anything less than $2.00 an hour fails to do this.)
  • A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to include all areas of employment which are presently excluded.
  • A federal Fair Employment Practices Act barring discrimination by federal, state and municipal governments, and by employers, contractors, employment agencies, and trade unions.

We cannot fully appreciate the beauty and power of Dr. King’s speech if we do not remember the critical context in which it was delivered. To divorce the speech from the demands of its historical moment is to memorialize a wonderful speech cut off from the dreadful material conditions of the people Dr. King loved so much and for whose freedom he would later give his life. We should also remember that while the concerns of the march were surely centered on African Americans, the organizers had in their view the suffering of poor whites and “…Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and other minorities helpless in our mechanized, industrial society. Lacking specialized training, they are the first victims of automation. Thus the rate of Negro unemployment is nearly three times that of whites.  Their livelihoods destroyed, the Negro unemployed are thrown into the streets, driven to despair, to hatred, to crime, to violence. All America is robbed of their potential contribution.”

The national unemployment rate on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 1963 was five percent, for blacks it was 10 percent. Today the national rate is 7.7 percent while for African Americans it is nearly 16 percent and almost 10 percent for Hispanics.  There is no pending legislation to create jobs for the millions of our unemployed citizens of every race and ethnicity. The dream suffers today as it did then. In 1963, the federal minimum wage was raised to $1.25 under the terms of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Today it is $7.25 and that represents a 30 percent loss in value over the last forty years. The dream suffers today, as it did then.

If the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 (now wallowing in Congress) were to become the law, 30 millions Americans would see their wages raised—nearly half of them would be African Americans. Dr. King spoke of his dream that his children and all children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. If that dream was a reality today it would mean little if it were not accompanied by lifting the crushing poverty into which children of color are born every day.   

Dr. King once described congress as, “…single-mindedly devoted to the pursuit of war” but “emotionally hostile to the needs of the poor.” The wars have changed, we need only substitute the War on Terror for the Vietnam War, but the hostility of congress, our government, to the poor has not changed.

Join us today and honor the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom call for a living wage for ALL WORKERS regardless of the color or their skin, or immigration status. As Dr. King said, "There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American citizen whether he be a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid or day laborer."