“The relative position of blacks has not changed economically since the march,” said William Darity Jr., a professor of public policy, economics and African American studies at Duke University. “Certainly, poverty has declined for everybody, but it has declined in a way that the proportion of blacks to whites who are poor is about the same as it was 50 years ago.”
That is hardly what labor leader A. Philip Randolph, the event’s visionary, had in mind when he called for a mass march for “Jobs and Freedom.” For decades, Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first predominantly black labor union, had pushed for economic equality for black Americans.
Speaking with his precise diction, Randolph told the throng on the Mall in 1963 that freedom to use public accommodations without substantial economic progress does not add up to full progress.
“Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them,” Randolph said in his speech. “Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?”
The U.S. income shift
Randolph’s words seem prescient. The march took place during a period of U.S. economic dominance that ignited unprecedented prosperity and a surging middle class. But the nation’s economy is now shaped as much by global competition and expansion as it is by domestic forces, fanning inequality and slowing the improvement in living standards for all but those at the very top.
“The economic backdrop to the anniversary of the march is the persistence of racial disparities, but you also have black people mirroring larger trends,” said Steven Pitts, a policy specialist at the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center. “Given that the March on Washington in 1963 occurred during the golden era of the U.S. economy, the desire to get on the boat made sense because the boat was rising. But now people may be getting on the boat, but it is sinking.”
The march took place at a time when the benefits of American economic growth were widely shared. Between 1947 and 1979, the wages of workers at all salary levels grew by roughly the same percentage.
But between 1979 and 2007, incomes shifted drastically, with the top 5 percent of earners seeing annual salary increases more than three times the size of those in the middle, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research organization. Overall, 63 percent of total income growth went to the top 10 percent of households between 1979 and 2007, according to Algernon Austin, an EPI economist.