August 28 marked the 52nd anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Each time the anniversary rolls around, I notice how little we collectively remember the specific, concrete ideas about education, employment, housing, voting, and public accommodations (the right to be served without discrimination in public businesses and government services) that marchers brought with them into Washington.
But since they marched, collective U.S. memory has turned the concrete “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” into the ethereal “I Have A Dream.” Ironically, the remote dream is more popularly accessible than the concrete policy and social items activists articulated a lifetime ago.
Like so many other anniversary articles, this year’s reflection in the New York Times recapitulated Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” riff and reprinted it in full with nary a mention of the material claims and criticisms Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, King, Josephine Baker, and other activists had made in speeches that day.
“I have walked into the palaces of kings and queens and into the houses of presidents. And much more. But I cold not walk into a hotel in America and get a cup of coffee.”—Josephine Baker, August 28, 1963
Contrary to our remembrances, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was not about a dream. It was about civil rights expectations, civil rights demands, and organizers insisted on comprehensive social justice. That just end including the right to meaningful work in a labor context where industrial jobs were increasingly automated and access to office, corporate, and high-status technical work was still artificially limited.
March co-organizer Bayard Rustin read these civil rights demands to the crowd and the crowd roared its assent to each one. A. Philip Randolph invited the crowd to pledge to see each item resolved, and the organizers later presented the demands to President Kennedy.
1. The first demand is that we have effective Civil Rights legislation, no compromise, no filibuster, and that it include public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission], and the right to vote. [Crowd cheers]
2. We demand the withholding of Federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. [Crowd cheers]
3. We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963. [Crowd cheers]
4. We demand the enforcement of the 14th Amendment, the reducing of congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised. [Crowd cheers]
5. We demand an Executive Order banning discrimination in all housing supported by Federal funds. [Crowd cheers]
6. We demand that every person in this nation, black or white, be given training and work with dignity to defeat unemployment and automation. [Crowd cheers]
7. We demand that there be an increase in the national minimum wage so that men may live in dignity. [Crowd cheers]
8. We finally demand that all of the rights that are given to any citizen be given to black men and men of every minority group including a strong FEPC. [Crowd cheers]
And now ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Randolph will read the pledge. This is a pledge which says our job has just begun. You pledge to return home to carry on the revolution. After Mr. Randolph has read the pledge, I will say, “Do you so pledge?” And you will say, “I do pledge.”
A. Philip Randolph, co-organizer:
The pledge: May you stand. Standing before the Lincoln Memorial on the 28th of August, in the centennial year of emancipation, I affirm my complete personal commitment to the struggle for jobs and freedom for Americans.
To fulfill that commitment, I pledge that I will not relax until victory is won. I pledge that I will join and support all actions undertaken in good faith in accord with the time-honored Democratic tradition of non-violent protest, of peaceful assembly, and petition, and of redress through the courts and the legislative process.
I pledge to carry the message of the March to my friends and neighbors, back home and arouse them to an equal commitment and equal effort. I will march and I will write letters. I will demonstrate and I will vote. I will work to make sure that my voice and those of my brothers ring clear and determine from every corner of our land.
I pledge my heart and my mind and my body unequivocally and without regard to personal sacrifice, to the achievement of social peace through social justice.
Rustin: How do you pledge? [Crowd: I so pledge.]
In the years since 1963, the crowd’s demands have not been met, and in some cases the situation has worsened. The Fair Employment Practices Commission proposal never passed into law, and though some states and local governments have agencies of their own, Congress failed to secure fair employment oversight.
Federal funds still support some forms of demographic housing and service discrimination, and LGBT people have no nationwide assurance of non-discrimination in housing or public services because existing federal laws do not account for them. No clerk could deny legal civic services to members of this nation today had the People’s concerns in 1963 been heard or resolved.
Today, the United States still does not recognize an affirmative “right to work” though it is an international human right. Black workers experience disproportionately high unemployment, even with graduate education. The national minimum wage is not a living wage and does not allow workers to live in dignity regardless of where they live.
Public education is segregated in practice and educational funding is unevenly distributed. The Supreme Court’s recent rulings on the Voting Rights have sustained citizen disfranchisement around the country. And civil rights laws, even where they do exist, are hampered by limitations and incredibly high burdens of proof.
It’s hard to say that we’ve “relaxed before victory is won”—because who can afford to relax? Young people enter the workforce hyper-burdened by the costs and debts of education and profession-relevant training. Wages are also stagnating while living costs increase, and yet wage improvement movements such as the Southern U.S.’ Show Me 15 remain the targets of denial and disapproval from political candidates and analysts alike.
The United States has failed to transform the civic sphere politically and materially. It has also failed to nurture a world in which the fulfillment and happiness of its most vulnerable is more than a dream: the promise of Labor Day is still yet to manifest.
“Happiness is fundamentally egalitarian and to demand it, against its apparent impossibility, is a militant act… I distrust Stoicism—the Stoicism of the immensely wealthy Seneca in his gold bathtub, telling people to accept their fate.” —Alain Badiou
Stacia L. Brown’s 2011 personal essay on self-sabotage recently crossed my social media feed. “The time you have spent convincing yourself of an intrinsic unworthiness,” she writes, “was not yours to waste.” Brown pushes back against niggling destructive social messages, affirms her power to create, and reminds herself of her responsibilities to the ancestors who gave her place, to the child she led into this world, and to herself and the unique gifts she carries.
This vividly intimate approach to work and social contribution is precisely what’s missing from the Labor Day conversation: the perspectives and rallying cries of those who have tried to apply the supposedly universal rules of work and met deep resistance.
“Universal” rules—including follow your passion and take risks—apply to the status quo’s ideal and anyone else who can squeeze under the wire fence of respectability. The rules don’t apply to anyone like Brown and Kevin Morosky and me who dares to engage the world of work as whole human beings and not as generic, round-edged production machines. We deny the world its asserted right to sort, value, rank, buy, and trade our labor and our lives, and there are always consequences for that denial.
One of my interviews after moving to the DC metro a few years ago began to stall when, asked about my recent experience fielding conflicts across lines of difference, I gave an example from my LGBT+/faith nonprofit work. It was a great story, and I’ve since found colleagues, mentors, and business partners who value the range of my experiences. But in that room that day, I watched the interviewer’s body language shut down and knew she had closed ranks. I came home and predicted the social categories that the department’s next hire would come from. Three weeks later, I learned that I was right.
Howard University professor and chair Greg Carr has argued that Labor Day is a complex public holiday for people who’ve historically been used as cogs and parts:
Thanks for our lives to every African, stolen from home and cast into enslavement labor hell, who somehow still produced us. #LaborDay
— Greg Carr (@AfricanaCarr) September 7, 2015
For people who’ve been used as cogs or parts or only engaged in part, for people who’ve been taught to mask our particularities and variances, the supposedly universal labor market is not a friend. My ancestral generations gave lives to serve this system and today, I’m not being drafted into it in the ways they were. I have choices they didn’t dream of.
These choices sometimes mean that my elders aren’t always equipped to help me recognize or navigate options available to me; there are cracks in the system or tracks across the lawn that either weren’t there in their time or were opaque to them because they were trained to perceive choice-beyond-survival as accessible only to the Privileged White Other.
Among contemporary Black creatives and technologists and entrepreneurs, I’m seeing a cohort of incredibly variant people choosing themselves, not choosing selfishly, but choosing themselves, their whole, gloriously becoming selves, and all in the face of market messaging that devalues their lives, skills, and vision. They’re developing businesses that give them ownership of their time and creations and the freedom to select colleagues and projects. They’re finding unorthodox ways to thrive and flourish in and beyond common labor. And they’re terrifying their parents.
My extended family has a long running joke: “Your elders taught you how to work, but not how to make money.” It’s a wry joke that covers over anxiety about property and retirement and insurance and travel and opportunity options. My grandparents were born to subsistence farmers, and my generation includes PhDs, medical doctors, and auditors. We all know how to work. Our elders taught us to survive and build. But this generation is also learning how to flourish.
This generation and the next will apply what our lineage has learned and improve on it. I hope that in 20, 50, 80 years, our descendants will be able to celebrate labor as one sphere in a full life where they have room to unfold. And I hope that my generation doesn’t wait that long to discover this for itself.
“I am not a young woman now, friends. My life is behind me. There is not too much fire burning inside me. And before it goes out, I want you to use what is left to light that fire in you. So that you can carry on, and so that you can do those things that I have done… I want you to have a chance at what I had. But I do not want you to have to run away to get it. ” —Josephine Baker, August 28, 1963
We are worthy of whole, healing, generative, creative, sweaty, intensive, fruitful hard work.
We are worthy of colleagues and partners who see us as the complete beings we are, not as fungible cogs to fit in.
We are worthy of bounded work, work that leaves us time and opportunity to sleep when weary, heal when sick, and connect when lonely.
We are worthy of labor that, after months of effort and hours of pain, yields far more of value than a 401(k).
I expect more of good labor than my ancestors ever could because others stripped their right to good labor away from them. No one will strip that right away from me.
Resist. Divest. Flourish. Whatever that means for you in your context, do it. Be it.
And not just today.