In August 1963, as was the case 100 years earlier when the cemetery for the heroes of Gettysburg was dedicated, many speeches were delivered; but one stood out as a galvanizing moment to redefine and repurpose a movement.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered in November 1863, clearly defined the issue of the Civil War to be whether states’ rights could trample the rights of anyone. Similarly, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech came to define the Civil Rights Movement of a century later.
It has come to be interpreted as a call for a colorblind society, instead of a call to end racial injustice. His vision was more powerful than the sanguine, “not judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” interpretation that has seen right-wing conservatives quoting Dr. King’s speech to justify racial disparities in the same way that tea party members embrace Lincoln’s “government of the people,” to somehow mean no government at all.
The 1963 march was the March for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King, who would become a champion for reforming America’s economic system so it worked to advance people—not crush them in poverty as sacrifices for progress—did not use the word “jobs” that day or make mention of the millions of Americans who were unemployed. Dr. King’s body of work, his push to end poverty in America, is clearly part of his legacy. He stands as a drum major for justice, not just racial justice but also economic justice.
But, his “I Have a Dream” speech was an articulation of how the Civil Rights Movement was a fulfillment of the founding principles of America in line with the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address. It clearly argued that racial injustice was so incompatible with American ideals that it could not be defended.
But, the march was a March for Jobs and Freedom. The march was the dream of A. Philip Randolph, who was the senior statesmen of the major civil rights leaders. In 1963, Randolph was 74 years old, King was 34, and the only living major speaker of the day is Rep. John Lewis, then the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who was 23.
Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was a union president and saw economic rights as inseparable from civil rights. And so it was Randolph who wanted the march to be a march for jobs.
As the leader of the march, Randolph opened the ceremonies at the Lincoln Memorial and was the master of ceremonies for the day of speeches. His characterization of the march was, “we are the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom.” While acknowledging racial injustice, he said, “We want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them.”
And most importantly, he pointed out that equal opportunity to jobs means nothing if we have an economic system that is destroying jobs.