Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Jobs and Freedom

Joey Fishkin

Fifty years ago, there was a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Today, we remember it as a call for race-based civil rights and voting rights legislation. It was that: The marchers demanded the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the March itself helped build the political will that eventually broke the Southern filibuster. The marchers also called for enforcing that never-yet-enforced provision of the Fourteenth Amendment that would reduce the representation of states that disenfranchise some of their citizens. Perhaps we are more likely to remember the legislation that was won, and to forget the demands that were never met.

Threaded through the demands of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom were calls for economic justice. The marchers demanded a nationwide minimum wage of “at least” $2.00 (it was then $1.25, so a 60% raise), in order to “give all Americans a decent standard of living.” They demanded a “massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers -- Negro and white -- on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” My colleague Willy Forbath has an excellent blog post today tracing the roots of these demands. He explains how these arguments for economic justice were deeply intertwined, from the start, with the calls for racial justice. We often think of the economic agenda of the 1930s and the civil rights agenda of the 1960s as entirely separate or even at odds, but there are deep continuities between the two.

Today, the “I have a dream” speech has become, in American political memory, an icon very much like Brown v. Board of Education. Both no longer have any opponents at all, and instead are universally revered canonical texts that all sides claim. Just like Brown, the “dream” speech—mainly one line from it, the one about “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”—has become a favorite text of those who seek to interpret both Brown and the civil rights movement itself as clarion calls for colorblindness and nothing more. From this perspective it is confusing to try to understand why the economist Joseph Stiglitz would be telling us today that he was inspired by witnessing the events on the Mall to become an economist and focus on the problem of economic inequality. Perhaps now, in a new era of heightened concern about economic inequality and exclusion, it would be a good time to recover why racial justice and economic justice seemed, fifty years ago, to advocates of both, to be inextricable.