Unfinished Agenda of the March on Washington: Economic Justice -Part 1

by  James Stewart, August 27, 2013

In recognition of the 50th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington, the Gazelle Index staff invited one of the countries most distinguished scholars, Dr Jim Stewart,  to share his reflections, which will be published in 2 parts.

 “The white liberal must affirm that absolute justice for the Negro simply means, in the Aristotelian sense, that the Negro must have ‘his due.’  There is nothing abstract about this.  It is as concrete as having a good job, a good education, a decent house and a share of power.  It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment.  I am aware of the fact that this has been a troublesome concept for many liberals, since it conflicts with their traditional ideal of equal opportunity and equal treatment of people according to their individual merits.  But this is a day which demands new thinking and the re-evaluation of old concepts.  A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him to compete on a just and equal basis.”   Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, Chaos or Community (New York, Harper and Row Publishers, 1967), pp. 90-91.

Fifty years after the historic March on Washington (MOW), its designation as a “March for Jobs and Freedom” haunts us as a reminder of an unfinished agenda in the ongoing battle for justice and equality for African Americans. While some economic gains have been achieved over the last 50 years, progress in many areas has been slow at best. And, unfortunately, the economic prospects for many African Americans have not improved significantly during the administration of Barack Obama.

Indeed, the search for economic justice was an important motivation for the MOW. Two principal organizers, A. Philip Randolph and Whitney Young, Jr., championed this thrust.  The MOW was, in fact, primarily the brainchild of Randolph, who was then serving as international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO.

Young, then president of the National Urban League, proposed a domestic “Marshall Plan” in 1963 to confront the problems facing inner-city neighborhoods. Modeled after the Marshall Plan that enabled Europe to rebuild after World War II, it consisted of a ten point program designed to attack racial inequalities in several critical areas including employment, education, housing, and health, and called for $145 billion in spending over 10 years.

Several elements of Young’s plan were partially incorporated into President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty”(WOP), that encompassed a large number of programs authorized by various laws including the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (EOA) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although many WOP initiatives have been eliminated or weakened under successive administrations, much of the basic architecture of the WOP has survived.

Although, as illustrated in Table 1, poverty rates for Black American families fell significantly between 1967 and 2000, by the time that President Obama was elected in 2008 poverty was on an upward trajectory, with the largest increases occurring between 2008 and 2009. The facts that in 2013 almost a quarter of all Black families and almost 45% of female-headed households with children under 18 live in poverty provide unquestionable documentation that MOW inspired quest for economic justice remains elusive.

Table 1. Poverty Rates for Black Families, Selected Years

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Poverty Tables, Table 4.

Lurking behind this sad record for the WOP is an even more dismal story regarding jobs and income. In 1972 there were 4,364,000 Black males in the labor force, a figure which had grown to 8,256,000 by 2012, representing a gain of 89%. The comparable figures for Black women were 3,555,000 in 1972 and 9,433,000 in 2012, and increase of 165%. This gender growth rate disparity reflects, in part, the continuing displacement of Black males from the labor force.

In 1972, 78.5% of Black males who were at least 20 years old were in the labor force, but this percentage had declined to 67.7 by 2012. In contrast, 51.2% of Black women were in the labor force in 1972, compared to 62.6% in 2012. Of course, being in the labor force is not the same as being employed and additional insights regarding the structural nature of the employment problems facing Black Americans can be garnered by examining the unemployment rate data in Table 2.

Table 2. Unemployment Rates for Black Males and Females (16 and older)

Source: U.S. census Bureau, Current Population Survey.

The relatively low unemployment rates for the years 1972, 1999, and 2007 occurred during economic upturns, while the alarming figures for 2010 and 2012 reflect the impact of the economy’s collapse in 2008. But even in the best of times the overall unemployment rate for Blacks is in the range of twice that of Whites. One particularly problematic aspect of the current unemployment crisis is the large number of long-term unemployed persons.

In January 2012, Blacks made up almost 24 percent of those unemployed for a year or more and 26 percent of those unemployed for 99 weeks or more. Moreover, unemployed Black workers are the least likely to be receiving unemployment benefits.

Part 2 will focus on the unfulfilled policy agenda.

Bio Sketch: Jim Stewart is an economist and Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, where he formerly served as Vice Provost, Professor of Labor Studies & Employment Relations and Director of African American Studies. Jim has published nine books and numerous scholar articles, many of which focused on the economic status of blacks