The March on Washington: Looking Back on 50 Years

The march helped advance the cause of economic justice, and although conservative efforts to defeat this progress have had some success, there is cause for optimism and a need for action.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaks to thousands of people during his
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, speaks to thousands of people during his "I Have a Dream" speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, in Washington, August 28, 1963. Actor-singer Sammy Davis Jr. is at the bottom right. (AP)

August 28 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. It is a time to celebrate a movement, a speech, and leaders who influenced generations of people around the globe and achieved genuine progress for diverse groups of Americans.

There is no doubt that America has come a long way since the civil rights era. But while the indignities of segregated public accommodations have largely disappeared, another significant theme of the march remains highly relevant half a century later: the struggle for economic opportunity and equality. It was perhaps due to the march and the great success of the larger civil rights movement that opposition to this sort of equality was immediate, persists to this day, and is reflected in all three branches of the federal government.

The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was based on 10 concrete demands, including comprehensive civil rights legislation, desegregation of public schools, voting rights, job training and dignified work, and an increased minimum wage. The potential to expand economic opportunity and lift African Americans, other Americans of color, and white Americans out of poverty and low-income status was clear—not just through direct tools such as wages and work but also through indirect avenues such as improved educational opportunities and the opportunity to vote for political candidates who work to advance economic justice.

Celebrating and commemorating genuine progress

This month’s anniversary raises the question: “Was the march a success?” In so many ways, the answer is “yes.”

The combined efforts of the 1963 marchers, policymakers in Congress, the office of the presidency, and researchers such as Michael Harrington who raised awareness about poverty among Americans of all races resulted in an unprecedented succession of legislative victories. New laws—including the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which helped wage the War on Poverty; the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the Civil Rights Act of 1968, or the Fair Housing Act—largely reflected the marchers’ demands and advanced the causes of economic and social justice.

These efforts rapidly improved conditions for African Americans in the United States. Between 1959 and 1979 black poverty rates dropped significantly, from 55 percent to 31 percent, and African Americans saw gains in education, employment, and democratic participation. Over the same time period, the number of black children attending majority-minority schools dropped from 77 percent to 63 percent, the annual wage gap between blacks and whites decreased from $8,901 to $7,285 in 2011 dollars, and black voter registration increased by nearly 20 points in the former Confederate states. Other groups benefited as well, including women, poor whites, other communities of color, people with disabilities, and senior citizens. They were either directly included in the civil rights and anti-poverty legislation that passed from 1964 to 1968 or benefited from subsequent laws patterned after that legislation—for example, Title IX, which prohibited sex discrimination in education; the Americans with Disabilities Act; and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

But something even larger came out of the march and the civil rights movement. They became the ultimate example of some important concepts, such as the power of peaceful social movements to bring about significant societal change, the ability of Congress and the president to work together to solve national problems, and the value to America of structures that protect minorities from injustice, even if that injustice is at the hands of the majority.

This legacy informs our nation 50 years later, as concerned Americans may feel discouraged about the ways in which government cuts are setting back efforts to aid the poor; partisan divides are limiting the ability of Congress and the president to solve national problems such as elevated unemployment and the need for jobs; and various groups, such as immigrant DREAMers, black youth in the wake of the Trayvon Martin decision, and Occupy Movement protesters, continue to strive for economic and social equality using strategies reminiscent of the 1960s.

The path to regression

So we must also face the bad news: Efforts to stop progress have always existed, and they persist to this day. When too many people remain indifferent, progress stagnates or turns to regression.

Attacks in reaction to the march found early expression when conservatives who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 rallied around the presidential campaign of former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ). In Awakening from the Dream, Lee Cokorinos and Alfred Ross outline the anti-civil rights movement from that point forward. After his landslide loss to President Lyndon B. Johnson, the focus of Sen. Goldwater’s supporters shifted to building national and regional think tanks such as The Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. The Reagan administration also appointed many of Sen. Goldwater’s supporters to positions in federal administrative agencies and on the federal bench. Efforts persisted into the 1990s and 2000s, during which time legal and advocacy organizations such as The Federalist Society grew and developed, creating legal arguments to defeat the cause of social justice in the courts and a network of conservative lawyers to fulfill the mission. Media outlets including Fox News also emerged and began to demonstrate their influence.

The courts

It is clear that the courts matter to America’s post-march story. On that August day in 1963, people demanded voting rights; soon after, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. By the year 2012, for the first time in our nation’s history, blacks voted at a higher rate than whites. But in 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, ending the practice of requiring states with a history of voting discrimination to get prior Justice Department approval before changing their voting practices.

The marchers also demanded school integration. But after significant initial progress—especially in the southern states—the U.S. Supreme Court struck substantial blows to their cause with a pair of 1970s cases—Milliken v. Bradley, 418 U.S. 717 (1974), and San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1 (1973)—that significantly limited the effectiveness of mandatory school-desegregation plans and declared that education is not a fundamental right. More recently, the Court even placed limitations on the ability of school districts to voluntarily create school-integration plans. Many districts have historically been required to integrate via court order after findings of discrimination.

Over the years other decisions have made it more difficult for people to take their claims of violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to court. New barriers to achieving the 1963 marchers’ dreams definitely exist.


Consider what’s happened—or hasn’t happened—in Congress. The 1963 marchers demanded job training and decent work. By 1978 Congress’s spending in this area reached a high of $38.6 billion in 2013 dollars. As the nation entered the Great Recession in 2007, however, that number had tanked to $8 billion in 2013 dollars. After several failed attempts, Congress hasn’t completed a reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, the nation’s largest job-training program, in 15 years. Some important methods that would improve services, such as shifting from an emphasis on short-term placements to one focused on developing skilled workers through education and training, have not been incorporated into the legislation.

The marchers also demanded an increase in the minimum wage. Over the years Congress has given America’s workers a few raises, but the real value of the minimum wage is now lower than it was in 1964 and can still leave a full-time worker with children below the poverty line. And as the nation’s fast-food workers join together to fight for decent wages, they are being ridiculed by conservatives.

Congress can also have an impact on the courts. Various members of Congress have introduced legislation that would rectify the damage done by the courts, including the Civil Rights Act of 2008. Notably, the Supreme Court’s voting-rights decision suggests that it is now Congress’s role to draft new legislation. Congress must also address partisan rancor over confirming judicial nominees. Not only do conservative efforts to load the bench with like-minded judges put the future of social justice at risk, but they also put all justice at risk. As the number of judicial vacancies grows to emergency levels, there are not enough judges to hear the cases piling up on dockets across the country.

What’s next

Moving forward, believers in economic and racial justice should take inspiration from the March on Washington and its reverberation, as this period is the best possible testament to the power of mass movement to bring about change. It is instructive for those seeking to generate the types of progress and government action needed—passing legislation that reshapes and improves upon existing structures, securing adequate funding for relevant services, improving the effectiveness of the judicial-confirmation process, and restoring gains that have been eroded by the courts.

Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Poverty and Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress. Zach Murray was a Congressional Hunger Fellow at the Center.

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Joy Moses

Senior Policy Analyst