When Bayard Rustin addressed the March on Washington in 1963, he said this: “We demand that there be an increase in the national minimum wage so that men may live in dignity.” The crowd cheered in response. But after fifty years of commemorating that march, after thousands of reverent re-readings of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, that dream remains deferred – and worse.
The minimum wage is lower today than it was in 1963.
Of the people who speak reverently about that march this week, how many will fight for a higher minimum wage so that all people can live in dignity? How many people will remember the full name of that gathering – “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”?
Without decent work at decent pay, “freedom” is an empty and hypocritical promise. It’s the selfish and false freedom which the powerful offer to the powerless. Without economic justice it’s the kind of freedom a French writer described over a century ago, in which “a poor person is as free to starve under a bridge as a rich person is to ride over it in his carriage.”
That’s why the marchers of 1963 called for both jobs and freedom. They knew how to distinguish false promises from true justice.
1963: The Shirelles and Jan and Dean were topping the charts. The Fugitive was a hit TV show. John Kennedy was in the White House. Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hats were the height of fashion.
And the minimum wage, when adjusted for inflation, was $8.37, a dollar and twelve cents higher than today’s rate of $7.25.
Sylvia A. Allegretto and Steven C. Pitts lay out the math in a paper for the Economic Policy Institute. At its highest point (in inflation-adjusted dollars) the minimum wage was $9.44 in 1968. It’s 23 percent lower now. And despite those who claim that a higher minimum wage leads to greater unemployment, the official unemployment figure in August of that year was 3.5 percent, less than half the current rate of 7.4 percent.
Productivity has risen – but working people have seen none of the resulting wealth. As Lawrence Mishel and Heidi Shierholz, also of the Economic Policy Institute, note: “During the Great Recession and its aftermath (i.e., between 2007 and 2012), wages fell for the entire bottom 70 percent of the wage distribution, despite productivity growth of 7.7 percent.”
In fact, as Dean Baker and Will Kimball point out, “If the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity growth it would be $16.54 in 2012 dollars” – and that’s using a conservative estimate of that growth.
Instead all of the resulting wealth has flowed to the wealthiest 1 percent in this country. That’s no accident. It’s the result of decisions made in corporate boardrooms, in the corridors of power, and in those corrupted places where those two settings merge into one.
Dr. King said these words to a group of strikers in Memphis, just three short weeks before his death:
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 10 million Americans qualify as the “working poor.” That means they spent at least half the year in the labor force yet still live below the poverty line. That includes 4 percent of all full-time workers. Black and brown Americans were more than twice as likely as white Americans to be among the working poor.
More than seven million children live in homes whose income would increase if we raised the minimum wage.
Dr. King would be 84 years old and a grandfather today had he not died in the cause of justice. He knew that fighting for that cause wouldn’t be easy. He also said this on that day in 1968:
“If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it.”
Will we be remembering something called “the March on Washington” this week, or will we more accurately recall “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”? Are we going to remember Dr. King’s sacrifice with platitudes or action?
We can satiate ourselves with fine thoughts and high-minded speeches, or we can commit ourselves to continuing the struggle which inspired the 1963 March – a struggle for which some gave their lives.