The civil rights movement was, of course, a push for equal human rights, but the scope was much more extensive. The push encompassed economic equality as well. It was, in true essence,a labor and economic movement.
Just examine the context of the speeches by civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., and there is evidence of the drive for labor and economic empowerment.
In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, there is an economic metaphor in the beginning, reported Marketplace.
“America has given its colored people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt,” King said in describing the economic hardships of Black Americans.
Yet, nearly 60 years later, Black Americans still haven’t accepted reparations.
According to Robin D.G. Kelley, a professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, the civil rights movement was additionally an economic and labor movement because “legalized segregation was an economic system. You know, it determined wages, determined job classifications, it determined where people can live. It even determined where you can go to school.”
“Well, the civil rights movement was always an economic movement because legalized segregation was an economic system,” Kelley told “Marketplace” radio host Kai Ryssdal. “You know, it determined wages, determined job classifications, it determined where people can live. It even determines where you can go to school. And one of the big issues that was raised was desegregation.’
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Kelley continued, “Desegregation was intended to end practices like taking Black people’s tax monies to subsidize white education. And finally, the Black community was a labor community. And it’s not an accident that Southern labor unions discriminated, but Black labor organizations fought for the right to equal wages, access to housing and fair rents — that sort of thing.”
The Economic Policy Institute pointed out that the civil rights movement was intertwined with the labor movement in the U.S.
“The core idea behind ‘civil rights’ is that people should have the freedom to exist in political and social equality with one another. But underemployment, an individual worker has a starkly unequal relationship with their employer. For workers to exist in the workplace without forfeiting their civil rights, they must be able to bargain on equal footing with their employers—that is, they need to have the ability to organize into unions among themselves,” the EPI blog reported. “In this sense, the movement for securing labor rights is not separate from the movement for securing civil rights—it is a fulfillment of those goals.”
In fact, the full name of the historic 1963 “March on Washington” was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” One of the organizers of the march, A. Philip Randolph was a labor organizer. The march’s focus was not just on social rights but also on Black Americans’ economic well-being.
In this Aug. 28, 1963, file photo Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center left with arms raised, marches along Constitution Avenue with other civil rights protestors carrying placards, from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. (AP Photo, File)