And so the march leadership was broadened to include religious leaders and labor leaders. Almost immediately, differences surfaced. Lewis was pressured into removing words from his speech that criticized the Kennedy administration’s civil rights proposals. Two men stood nearby as he spoke, ready to turn off the sound system and, perhaps, to physically remove him from the stage. The large-scale reduction of the march to a demonstration of support for the pending 1964 Civil Rights Act has largely excised the struggle that had made the march even possible.
The economic plight of black people, possibly the most forgotten part of the march, may be the aspect that is most relevant today. Black unemployment was twice that of whites and remains about the same today. The agricultural South was rapidly mechanizing, and blacks, for economic as well as political reasons, were fleeing the South. But many were victims of a system that had deliberately and systematically kept them ill-educated or without any education at all. Most stood little to no chance of gaining meaningful work in an industrial society.
Five of the March on Washington demands focused on labor issues, including a minimum wage act, job training and jobs for the unemployed. “The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech. “America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ”
Today, although anti-black terrorism has lessened and segregation abolished, far too many blacks, Latinos and poor people find their future sequestered as they are told to wait with patience for attention to be paid to addressing their limited opportunities.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights leader who helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, once said: “We’ve put Martin on this rotunda of unrelenting adulation and removed him from the struggle for economic justice. Somewhere along the way we managed to resurrect the messenger and bury the message.”
I met King only twice. Still, I know of his discomfort with his increasingly iconic status. He knew what the freedom movement was and who made it. If he were standing in the shadow of his own memorial on the Mall this weekend, I believe he would wonder what happened to his message — and where we are going now.