Wednesday was the fiftieth anniversary of perhaps the greatest speech in American history. Martin Luther King Jr. told the nation he had “a dream” about a colorblind America, which, with laws forcing racial segregation and some remarkably ugly responses to demonstrations, was much farther away than now.
The centerpiece of the country’s great transition since, our black President, affirmed on this anniversary that he too is a world-class practitioner of the speaker’s art. He superbly recapped those 1963 events, and explained how and why the efforts of those involved brought the United States into the modern civil-rights world. He also brought up something that has seemingly been lost from our collective memory:
In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination – the very significance of those victories may have obscured a second goal of the March. For the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract ideal. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice – not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal? ... And Dr. King explained that the goals of African Americans were identical to working people of all races.
Indeed, the complete official name of the 1963 rally was “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” According to William P. Jones, writing in The New York Times on Tuesday, the demonstration originated with the Negro American Labor Council. Long-time trade union member A. Philip Randolph, who had had a similar idea 22 years before, sought an emphasis on the weaknesses of then-President John F. Kennedy’s economic programs, and only later did that lose out to King’s primary cause of removing legal discrimination. Yet the issue of jobs remained closely related.
Over the half-century, along with the removal of legal sanctions against blacks and those in other groups, the civil rights movement has itself changed, and not for the better. Shelby Steele, an author and senior Stanford fellow, last month wrote a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “The Decline of the Civil Rights Establishment.” In it, he explained how those who might now compare closest to the likes of contemporaries King, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, specifically Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, are not even close in “moral authority” or the pursuit of true justice. Modern issues such as the acquittal of a white man shooting a black teenager who had just broken his nose cannot compare to the routine impediments around workplaces, buses, lunch counters, and other daily life settings legally sanctioned against millions. Steele also mentioned the lack of the likes of Jackson and Sharpton to address what might be called self-inflicted abuses, such as the three-hundred-plus black teenagers annually killed by other blacks in only one section of one city, or the current 73% black illegitimacy rate, and calls today’s civil rights leadership “irrelevant.”
Whether you agree with Steele or not, it should be clear that today’s bigotry-caused racial problems, while still present, are much milder than they were in 1963. That means the aggregate of organizations working to reduce racial discrimination cannot possibly be as significant as they were when King spoke. So what can they focus on now?
We know the answer, from above: Jobs.
Here, though, we have two possible paths. One is represented by other news from this week – the fast-food workers’ demonstrations. (I hesitate to call them “strikes,” because the people involved are not unionized.) There has been a growing national movement by these low-paid laborers to earn more, usually in conjunction with a higher minimum wage. Unfortunately, forced pay increases would cost jobs, driving the national shortage well over its current 21.5 million, and would widen a less publicized but very real type of inequality, that between those working and those who only want to be. Although few if any of the Burger Kings, McDonalds’, and Wal-Marts would be seen dropping positions immediately after a large raise in the minimum, they would later have innumerable opportunities to cut their numbers, through staffing of new locations, articulation of ever-growing automation and efficiency, and simple attrition. Local businesses, usually less profitable, would do proportionally even worse.
The second path was described by Obama in Wednesday’s speech:
The test was not, and never has been, whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many – for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call – this remains our great unfinished business.
We shouldn’t fool ourselves. The task will not be easy. Since 1963, the economy has changed. The twin forces of technology and global competition have subtracted those jobs that once provided a foothold into the middle class – reduced the bargaining power of American workers.
Raising the pay of fast-food and other low-wage workers from its current almost $9 per hour to $12 or $15 will not get us “a fair shot for the many.” Middle-class lifestyles with new cars and owned standalone houses will not come from higher minimum wages. We need to look at some real solutions – guaranteed income (advocated by, among many others, none other than Martin Luther King), shorter working hours, payments for electronic information, and other possibilities people want to describe and defend. Among them, if it is anywhere, is the way to the original dream of that 1963 event. The jobs crisis is not a black or white issue, it is an American one. As Obama said, from the same speech:
The March on Washington teaches us that we are not trapped by the mistakes of history, that we are masters of our fate. But it also teaches us that the promise of this nation will only be kept when we work together.