March on Washington commemoration must focus on black unemployment


It is always important to look back on historical moments in history and remember how important it was and reflect on those who made it possible. But it is also to continue to have a forward-looking vision that connects the past with the present.

When both veterans of the civil rights movement and those who weren’t even alive then gather in Washington, D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a lot will be said about the past.

Rep. John Lewis of Georgia is the only surviving speaker on the official part of the program. However, others who witnessed the speech are older and grayer, but still among us.

It was an unbelievable sight to see 250,000 people stand before the Lincoln Memorial to gather for jobs and freedom for African-Americans. We remember the march for the massive audience as well as the riveting speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered what is known today as the “I Have A Dream” speech.

During that moment in history, the heavy hand of Jim Crow was oppressive for African-Americans across America, especially for those living under the brutality in the South. Voting was virtually non-existent; blacks couldn’t eat in public places like hotels and restaurants. What the march largely focused on was the economic condition of African-Americans.

When most folks think about the march, too much focus is on the “I Have A Dream” portion of King’s speech and not the beginning two-thirds, which was a condemnation of the economic policies that stifled black growth in America.

“One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,” King said. “One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

What many people forget is that in the final year of his life, Dr. King was planning the Poor Peoples Campaign, looking to bring the nation’s poor to the National Mall to bring attention to their plight. Last year, King confidant Harry Belafonte told me during an interview on my TV One show, Washington Watch, that King understood that black America, and all Americans, couldn’t be truly free unless they had economic freedom.

A lot has changed for black America since August 28, 1963, but when you examine the economic condition in 2013, we are still facing troubled times.

As America has desperately tried to escape the recession that gripped the world over the past five years, black unemployment remains pathetically high. Overall, the unemployment rate announced in March was 7.7 percent. For African-Americans, it was 13.8 percent. Black teen unemployment was 43.1 percent.

The wealth gap between whites and blacks is at an even wider gap today than it has been in three decades.

According to a study by Brandeis University released two weeks ago, the wealth gap between white and black families increased from $85,000 to $236,500 between 1984 and 2009.

The median net worth of whites is now $265,000 and $28,500 for blacks.

The Brandeis study says there are five vital factors for this: number of years owning a home, average family income, college education, employment stability and financial support from families and inheritance.

Many will read this and say, “Oh, please! Get an education, find a good job, work hard and all will be well.”

But it’s not that simple. Look at the state of education where largely African-Americans live, limited resources play a crucial role. The lack of a quality education limits the ability to attend college and determines what kind of job you will have. The inability of blacks being able to go to college for decades in the 20th century, as well as access good-paying jobs due to long-term racial policies of America have played a role in the inability to pass down wealth from one generation to another.

All of these factors are why a commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom shouldn’t be a big love fest for folks focused on civil rights. It should be singularly focused on driving an agenda that speaks to the employment crisis afflicting black America.

Those who are planning events around the march shouldn’t fall into the easy trap of letting any and everyone bring their agenda in August. The beauty of the 1963 march is that it was narrow, specific and designed to address a critical need.

If organizers today want to really walk in the footsteps of those in 1963, then go back and study why they all met in the first place. The agenda was set in 1963 on jobs and income inequality. In 2013, this generation should pick up that baton and run with, so the next time there is a commemoration, we will be celebrating how successful we were in addressing and fixing the problem.

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Roland S. Martin is an award-winning CNN analyst and author of the book “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House as Originally Reported by Roland S. Martin.”