50th Anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom

Today, August 28, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the March for Jobs and Freedom, memorialized by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. One of the largest political rallies in American history, the March for Jobs focused on advancing not only civil rights for African Americans but also economic rights for minorities and equality in the workplace. The March succeeded in pressuring for important Civil Rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits job discrimination and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and executive presidential orders to enforce bans on employment discrimination, and initiatives to diversify the labor force.

This legislation led to considerable improvements in minority workers’ rights, reducing the employment gap for minorities in high-wage municipal jobs and public positions, for example. According to the UC-Berkeley Labor Center, African-Americans the representation of African-Americans in the public sector was 21 percent in 2010 compared with 16 percent of whites, and 23.6 percent for African-American women compared with 19 percent of white women. A Census Bureau report also shows progress, reflecting that the poverty rate for African-Americans has decreased by 14 percent, and median income of African-Americans has almost doubled since 1963.

However, fifty years later, the struggle for minority labor rights is far from finished. Studies show that minorities, especially African-Americans and women, continue to be overrepresented in low-wage public sector jobs, and their representation in high-skill jobs has dropped to a level comparable to that in the 1960s. According to the Pew Research Center, the increase of household incomes for African-Americans compared to whites has been approximately 4 percent since 1967. While the causes for these disparities are often unequal access to education and training, discrimination continues to be a major obstacle for minorities to access equal economic opportunities and equity in the workplace.

Budget cuts responding to the financial crisis have also had a disparate effect on minorities. For example, ending teacher tenure in North Carolina and limiting public worker collective bargaining in Wisconsin makes these workers more economically vulnerable and has major repercussions for racial minorities in the long term. The unemployment rate for African-Americans is 12.6 percent and 9.4 percent for Hispanics, while the overall unemployment rate in the country is 7.4 percent. Also, minorities tend to remain unemployed for much longer than whites. A 2011 study showed that the median duration of unemployment for African-Americans was 27.7 weeks compared with 19.7 weeks for whites.

Post civil rights legislation has also decreased discrimination for LGBT and female workers. The most recent advances include the Senate committee markup of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Social Security Administration’s improvement of gender marker policies. However, discrimination against LGBT people working as federal contractors has yet to be banned.

The 50th Anniversary March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 24 brought together many members of civil rights organizations, women’s rights groups and the LGBT community. These marches continue to be necessary to achieve the dream of equity in the workplace and the complete advancement of civil rights.