There is much to celebrate in marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, as Congressman John Lewis rightly noted on Wednesday.
“Sometime I hear people saying nothing has changed,” said Representative Lewis, “but for someone to grow up the way I grew up in the cotton fields of Alabama to now be serving in the United States Congress makes me want to tell them come and walk in my shoes. Come walk in the shoes of those who were attacked by police dogs, fire hoses and nightsticks, arrested and taken to jail.”
President Barack Obama agreed.
“To dismiss the magnitude of this progress—to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed—that dishonors the courage and the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years,” he said.
But Congressman Lewis and President Obama also spoke eloquently about the substantial work that remains if we are to fulfill the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights activists who risked and sacrificed their lives in order to achieve our nation’s greatest advances.
“…The securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination—the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march,” said President Obama. “For the men and women who gathered fifty years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice.”
President Obama ticked off the marchers’ call for “decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community”—adding that it is with regard to these economic goals that we “have fallen most short.”
Lewis was more explicit in decrying “the scars and stains of racism [that] still remain deeply embedded in American society.” Among the evidence: stop-and-frisk, the Trayvon Martin case, mass incarceration, immigration policy, poverty, employment inequities, and the renewed struggle for voting rights.
President Obama suggested that there is a solution at hand, and it lies in having “the courage” to “stand together”—that we must “reignite the embers of empathy and fellow feeling,” creating the kind of “coalition of conscience” that marched in DC fifty years ago.
“With that courage, we can feed the hungry, and house the homeless, and transform bleak wastelands of poverty into fields of commerce and promise,” he said.
The President insisted—as he has many times—that “change does not come from Washington but to Washington…built on our willingness, we the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship.”
Yesterday thousands of fast food workers in more than fifty cities struck for higher wages and the right to form a union. This growing movement has focused attention on the struggles of low-wage workers. If President Obama believes that it is in achieving the economic opportunity goals of the March on Washington where we have fallen most short—and indeed nearly 30 percent of workers earned poverty wages in 2011—shouldn’t he speak forcefully and explicitly in support of these workers’ current actions?
Along those same lines, nearly 2 million workers employed under federal contracts don’t earn a living wage—more than the number of low-wage workers at Walmart and McDonald’s combined. By signing an executive order, President Obama could take an important step toward lifting these wages and ensuring that government contracts are awarded based on the quality of jobs created. His administration could also act, finally, to extend minimum wage and overtime protections to 2.5 million home care workers.
Yes, change comes from outside of Washington, but when it arrives on Capitol Hill, it requires courage and action from a president to see it through. Former President Bill Clinton noted that just three months after the 1963 march, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, “and we thank God that President Johnson came in and fought for [these] issues.”
We don’t need any more data on inequality and stagnant wages—we know the state of things and the right thing to do. The fact that Republicans make action impossible on too many common-sense measures like investing in infrastructure and job creation—that’s all the more reason President Obama needs to take action when he can, where he can.
“That’s where courage comes from, when we turn not from each other, or on each other, but towards one another, and we find that we do not walk alone,” said the president.
Now is his opportunity to show tens of millions of citizens that he is walking with them, and that together we will not turn back.