As we commemorate the March on Washington and look to the past for tools to fix the present, one speech from that day emerges as the best blueprint for understanding modern oppression and resistance.
But it’s not what you think.
Though Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech echoes through the generations, march organizer A. Philip Randolph’s opening remarks contain the instructions we need to save ourselves from despair. Randolph’s address, not King’s, affirms activism as the engine of social change, and exposes the folly of citizenship without economic justice.
Nobody doubts King’s rhetorical and political genius. Much has been written about his evolution as a political thinker and activist, and King’s efforts on behalf of workers are often ignored in attempts to downplay the more radical elements of his vision. The content of King’s “Dream” speech, however, is not heavily laden with analyses of poverty and class struggle.
In his speech, King explains that activists have come to “dramatize an appalling condition,” namely, black American suffering. They have come, he explains, “to cash a check,” and force America to live up to its creed as written in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He repeatedly drives home “the fierce urgency of now,” celebrates the freedom fighters’ determination, and pleads, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” This stirring, inspirational call reaches its peak with the “Dream” improvisation, and the spirit of the movement is born anew through King’s delivery.
Randolph’s remarks to open the march contain little of the sweeping language woven though King’s speech, and at times, his delivery is downright robotic. But what he lacks in style, Randolph makes up for in substance, providing a marked contrast to King’s message. Two specific arguments stand out. First, the Civil Rights Movement is a moral revolution and a challenge to American political institutions, not an appeal to live up to American values, and second, there can be no end to racial oppression without economic justice.
“Let the world know the meaning of our numbers,” Randolph explains, “We are not a pressure group, we are not an organization or a group of organizations, we are not a mob. We are the advanced guard of a massive, moral revolution for jobs and freedom.” This moral revolution will not be achieved via the pity or good sense of those who occupy the halls of power. Randolph reminds us that the legislature and the Supreme Court did not change or enforce the law until activists forced them to, by registering voters, boycotting, and integrating public accommodations throughout the South in the face of heinous violence.
In the midst of protests over voter suppression and the killing of Trayvon Martin, it is clear that the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are not sufficient for equal protection under the law. “Real freedom,” Randolph tells us, “will require many changes in the nation’s political and social philosophies and institutions.”
Racism lies at the center of this struggle, and Randolph dissects the problem by specifying the relationship between racial and economic oppression. “The sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality. It falls to the Negro to reassert this proper priority of values, because our ancestors were transformed from human personalities into private property.” This is a powerful critique of the indignity of 1960s racism, but also a direct assault on contemporary neoliberalism. American history demands that we reject the toxic axioms that the social good is comprised solely of individual choice and protection of private property.
Randolph describes the relationship between racial and economic justice not merely as complementary, but as mutually constitutive: There is no such thing as citizenship without jobs for American workers. “Yes,” Randolph affirms, “we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practice Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers black and white?”
Racial oppression in the Obama era often takes the form of obvious mistreatment, with evidence of implicit bias, prejudice, and discrimination against blacks and other people of color. But the foundation of contemporary racism is economic inequality and the financial crisis, which shines a light on the nature of class exploitation. Wealth gaps between whites and people of color have widened dramatically. Even as the economy stabilizes, data suggest ongoing suffering and blacks continue to lag behind other racial groups. The black unemployment rate, which now sits between 12 and 13 percent, has consistently doubled the white rate over the past 50 years. A recent study shows that since the end of the recession, non-Hispanic white household income has declined by 3.6 percent, to $58,000, and by 4.5 percent for Hispanic households, to $41,000. In contrast, non-Hispanic blacks have suffered a 10.9 percent decline, to $33,500.
As Randolph, Harvard law professor Lani Guinier, and others argue, the black poverty crisis cannot be treated as the unfortunate side effect of an economic system that “naturally” creates winners and losers. Black poverty is an alarm, warning the rest of the country what lies ahead if corporate power is unchecked and government investment in employment, health care, and education diminishes. “Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro,” Randolph says.
A. Philip Randolph’s speech is a blueprint for building the country King dreamed about. The best way to honor the Civil Rights Movement is to demand economic justice as part of the fight to end racism, and take the work of moral revolution into our own hands.