On August 24 a broad coalition of labor, civil rights, and other progressive groups gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for the National Action to Realize the Dream March, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It could not come at a more opportune time.

The August 28, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is best remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech that has inspired generations to keep their dreams for a better society alive and to act together to realize them.

Less well-known today are the practical demands that the marchers took to Washington to improve their pay and secure better jobs and benefits. With Americans again confronting stagnant wages and a moribund economy, a look back at the March’s coalition building might offer some fresh ideas of how to secure economic and social justice.

Two well-known labor leaders were central organizers of the 1963 march: A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and Walter Reuther, President of the United Auto Workers. A few other unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union also supported the March. But that was about as far as labor’s support went. Conspicuous in their absence were the AFL-CIO and its President George Meany, who remained neutral about the March and was out of town the day it was held. 

Reuther not only spoke at the Lincoln Memorial before King’s famous speech; he also helped arrange a White House meeting for King and other March organizers with President Kennedy later that day. The group pressed the president to push hard for his civil rights bill. That bill, which included Title VII outlawing discrimination in employment, became law in 1964 after Kennedy’s assassination. It took the demonstrated power of the March, the sustained pressure of the coalition of civil rights and labor groups, and President Lyndon Johnson’s classic arm-twisting political skills to achieve this historic legislative landmark.

The organizers of the March also put forward ten demands for economic and social change, four of which focused on jobs and employment policies—increasing the minimum wage to $2 an hour, training and placing the 5.7 percent of the workforce unemployed at the time, strengthening labor market standards, and outlawing discrimination in employment. The next 5 years not only saw passage of the Civil Rights Act, but unemployment also declined to under 4 percent, the minimum wage was raised to $1.60, and federal training and other labor market programs were expanded to help unemployed workers and regionally depressed communities.

Today civil rights, labor, and progressive groups face similar challenges. Unemployment is hovering around 7.3 percent with job growth so limited that without aggressive government action it will be a decade before the economy regains the jobs lost in the Great Recession and adds jobs to match the growth of the labor market since then. Wages for ordinary workers have flatlined for three decades. The minimum wage has less purchasing power today than it did in 1963. Labor is also dramatically weaker than it was then. In 1963 nearly 30 percent of the labor force was organized; today union membership is down to 6.6 percent in the private sector and 11.3 percent overall. To top it off, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to nullify a key part of the Voting Rights Act threatens once again to disenfranchise black Americans and other minorities.

Today’s mix of problems calls for demands that echo those of the 1963 marchers: increase and enforce the minimum wage and get wages moving in a positive direction; make the public and private investments needed to stimulate growth of good jobs that allow young and old alike to put their skills to work; and strengthen the rights of workers to organize.

Complex problems that affect many different groups can motivate the creation of new coalitions. Today it is encouraging to see how determined and active the labor movement, civil rights, immigrant, environmental, LGBT, and other progressive groups are in building ties to pursue a shared agenda.

One can only hope that like the 1963 March, this one will again will serve as an inspirational call to action for the broad cross section of Americans that are blocked from realizing the American Dream.

Photograph: Orlando Fernandez/Library of Congress