50 years after the March on Washington: An unfinished revolution

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Tens of thousands of spirited people, mostly African Americans, descended on the nation’s capital on Aug. 24 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington (MOW) for Jobs and Freedom. A turning point in U.S. history, Martin Luther King’s epic “I have a dream” speech still reverberates. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally outlawed segregation and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 officially prohibited voting discrimination.

Participants were quick to note the still unfinished character of the civil rights movement. The Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women contingent focused on demanding an immediate halt to closing inner city public schools and denouncing the imprisonment of Marissa Alexander for defending herself with a gun. “Black people and women have made strides, but we need more,” said Beth Perry who traveled from Hartford, Conn.

In fact, we need a lot more.

“Post-racial” myth. Despite the obvious support for President Obama among many participants, their very presence gave the lie to Obama’s pretensions that America is now a “post-racial” society.

Poverty remains the key racial divide. Black unemployment compared to whites has not budged since 1963, hovering above 2 to 1. The wages of more than one-third of non-Latino Black workers are inadequate to bring a family of four out of poverty. Forty-five percent of poor African American children live in neighborhoods with poverty rates above 30 percent — “concentrated poverty” — compared to 12 percent of poor white children. Blacks are 40 percent of the homeless shelter population.

For African Americans, decent housing, adequate health care facilities, and quality public schools remain on the other side of the tracks, despite advances in the right to vote. Thus, real progress will take a rekindled political and economic civil rights movement, with leadership and a program of struggle that taps into the powerful desire for fundamental change.

“I am here for jobs and freedom. There are no jobs for our kids. They need to stop opening jails and create jobs. We need a higher minimum wage.” So declared Beatrice Jackson, a Black woman from Maryland and a member of the Labor International Union of North America.

U.S. capitalism needs racism. Today, the American capitalist economy is in crisis. Wall Street is scrambling to save itself. And it is doing this by dialing up racism.

During the recession, Black unemployment has risen faster than white and Blacks remain unemployed longer than whites.

Black communities are a prime target of Wall Street’s privatization scheme for creating new areas of profitable investment. Schools in the inner cities are disproportionately labeled as “failing,” then turned into private charter schools. For-profit prisons incarcerate increasing numbers of Black youth.

Prior to the modern civil rights movement, political inequality was maintained through Jim Crow segregation of Blacks from whites. Economic discrimination in jobs, housing, education, and treatment by police and courts was the written and unwritten law of the land.

The civil rights movement formally eliminated political Jim Crow, but not the capitalist economy. So deep economic inequities persist.

This system based on the supremacy of profit has been the historical brick wall that repeatedly stops in its tracks the political struggle for freedom. Both the post-Civil War Reconstruction program, which strained to overcome the monstrous consequences of slavery, and the 1960s civil rights struggle, hit that wall.

So what the 1963 MOW was to Reconstruction, the 2013 MOW was to the civil rights movement — passionate protest against inadequate progress in the pursuit of freedom. One hundred years following the Emancipation Proclamation, March on Washington 1963 signaled that liberation was still too far away.

Democrats no help. It may appear that the election of Obama was the product of the civil rights struggle. But actually, Obama got more campaign money from capitalist Wall Street than any candidate in U.S. history. He was chosen by big business to carry out its economic agenda and simultaneously keep false hope alive, by promoting the myth that he is on the side of the working class.

Nor were the Kennedy brothers responsible for earlier successes of the movement. President John Kennedy actually urged leaders to call off the 1963 march, as his brother Robert did with the Freedom Rides into the segregated South. Both said that social protest would arouse the right wing to violence. They could have fortified the movement by encouraging mass protests to defeat the racists. Instead, they urged people to stay home and trust the Democrats.

Reliance on the Democratic Party was not the only serious weakness of the 1963 march. George Meany, head of the AFL-CIO, refused to endorse the march and thus hog-tied the power of rank-and-file unionists. Additionally, leading organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Negro American Labor Council failed to promote women and gay leaders, who were key organizers of the march.

Moving forward. This year’s action unfortunately paralleled the 1963 MOW in its limited mobilization of rank-and-file labor. The U.S. labor movement needs to full-out organize for full employment through public works programs and reducing the workweek to 30 hours with no cut in pay, for revived affirmative action policies to reverse generations of discrimination, and for rebuilding inner cities by taxing the corporations and discrediting the Pentagon war budget.

Rank-and-file workers, not their bureaucratic misleaders glued to the Democrats, constitute the real social force capable of lifting the struggle to a higher, anti-capitalist level. Now is the time to get radical, as a deeper understanding of capitalist racism takes root.

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Obama’s approval rating among Black voters dropped from 93 percent in April to 78 percent in June. It fingered Obama’s “the-jury-has-spoken” reply to Trayvon Martin’s murder, the continuing mass incarceration of Black men, and the rise in Black unemployment.

The dream for justice and equality needs to go beyond fragile reforms and envision instead, replacing capitalism with the revolutionary integration of free people into a society that thrives not on racism, but on human solidarity and aid.

Steven Strauss is a political activist in Baltimore and attended the 2013 March in Washington in D.C. For feedback, contact fspbaltimore@hotmail.com.

To listen to this article and others from this issue, click here.

Also see:

Black America Part I — The heroic story of working-class Detroit

Black America Part II — Who is Assata Shakur, and why is she on the FBI list of top terrorists?

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