Fifty years ago, Bayard Rustin saw his lifelong vision of a massive political rally for the civil and economic rights of African Americans and America's workers, as well as equal protection under the law for all Americans, come to fruition with the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Playing it forward, the list of demands articulated by Rustin are as relevant today as they were in 1963. Rustin spent a lifetime committed to the pursuit of justice and equality and if alive today, would still be front and center in the pursuit of those goals.
Rustin, who will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Obama, articulated demands for justice and equality that he had fought for his whole life. The list of demands included free and unencumbered access to the ballot, a fair and equitable minimum-wage law, equal protection under the law for all Americans, and a job and training program designed to preserve and protect American jobs.
Rustin would be front and center demanding a restoration of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and the cessation of the wave of voter-suppression laws that have swept the country since the election of President Obama. It would be hard for Rustin to ignore the coincidence of the election of a black man with the fervent desire to implement voter suppression methods that directly affect the constituency that elected him. Rustin would see the knee-jerk reaction of former Jim Crow states like Texas , Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina for what it is — the attempt to disenfranchise poor and minority voters of the right to cast their vote. He would be able to read between the lines and see that laws that require you to spend money to obtain the documentation necessary to obtain “the free ID” necessary to vote amount to nothing more than a modern-day poll tax and he would find it ironic that the same mindset that prevented people from voting in 1963 still exists today. He would be appalled that early voting hours are being cut for “budgetary” reasons when it will exacerbate the already disproportionate waiting time of those people that vote in poor and minority communities. Rustin understood in 1963 that access to the ballot gives poor and minority people the collective power to make a difference. He knew that there were people afraid of that power then and those same kind of people are afraid today.
A fair and equitable minimum wage of $2 per hour was a key demand of the 1963 March on Washington. Today we are still demanding that wages stay consistent with the cost of living and one of the ways to ensure that is to support an increase in the national minimum wage to $9 per hour. More disposable income in the pockets of American consumers would increase demand for services that would in turn offset concerns that the increase in labor costs would result in fewer jobs. Companies hire when demand exceeds capacity and the workers that would see the increase in salary are the ones most likely to increase demand for the small business services that are of paramount concern to economic growth in America.
Equal protection under the law is the hallmark of American jurisprudence. Rustin included a demand for the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment and the reducing of congressional representation of states where citizens are disenfranchised. As a openly gay activist, Rustin would be calling for a federal law banning discriminatory practices against members of the LGBT community. He would be advocating for same-sex marriage and he would be demanding that states recognize the lawful marriage of gay and lesbian couples that obtained their marriage licenses from states that have legalized gay marriage. He would celebrate the Supreme Court decision on Proposition 8 especially given the fact that he was arrested in Pasadena, California for having a three-way in a car with two white men. He would recognize that government, local, state, or otherwise has no business dictating the types of familial bonds that consenting and competent individuals wish to form.
Big labor played a critical role in the March on Washington. A. Philip Randolph, Rustin's mentor, was the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Porters and a member of the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO. Rustin and Randolph, along with Walter Reuther, foresaw the impact that automation would have on the manufacturing sector in America and called for a jobs bill that included public works projects, “ready-to-shuffle” jobs, and extensive job training. It is highly probable that Rustin would be advocating strongly for a job bill that included an Infrastructure Capital Bank that would put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work immediately. He would understand that construction and manufacturing jobs lead to ancillary and complementary service demands, such as food, lodging, clothing, tools, and consumer goods, that can help to revitalize the economy.
Finally, Rustin would see the attempt to roll back the collective bargaining rights of labor unions for what it is — a way to reduce benefits and salaries. Why would workers allow big business to return to an era when workers did not have the health benefits, pension plans, and wages that reflected their contribution to the business? Rustin would have said no to these efforts and would have participated and helped to organize the rallies that sought the recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.
In 1941, Rustin and Randolph forced President Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 which established the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Today Rustin would have stood in opposition to those in Congress who openly obstructed the work of the National Labor Relations Board. Rustin understood the right to work, but he also understood that workers have the right to organize in order to ensure safe working environments, benefits and wages, and arbitration rights.
Rustin was a visionary in the pursuit of civil rights secured through economic justice. He understood the power of the ballot and respected the rights of individuals to live their private lives as they chose.
Where are you today, Mr. Rustin? We still need you.