“It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.” – Whitney M. Young
In August 1963, more than a quarter of a million people gathered in Washington, D.C. to march for jobs and equality. The Great March for Jobs and Freedom was a watershed moment in American history, birthing now-iconic speeches that voiced the hardships facing blacks as they sought a fair shot at an elusive dream.
As we fast-forward 50 years and reflect on the progress we’ve made toward economic equality, we meet the sobering truth that much has been achieved, but much more needs to be done. Some people use apparent progress–that Blacks are no longer barred from living, learning and earning where they want because of their race, not to mention the election and reelection of our first Black president –to conclude that Blacks in America have overcome.
However, a shiny veneer of progress cannot justify the elimination of affirmative action in education and employment; the roll-back of voting rights protections and relegation of this precious franchise to increasingly partisan legislatures; or a cut back on social investments that can help current and future generations thrive in a fast-changing economy.
Taken alone, our achievements could be hailed as progress. But unfortunately, economic disparities with whites persist and cast doubt on what we thought was meaningful change. These disparities underscore the need to reinforce our fight for economic empowerment and for policies driving development in under-resourced communities. For example, the National Urban League’s 2011 “War on Unemployment,” was expanded in January with a ground-breaking endeavor, Jobs Rebuild America – a call for a series of public/private investments totaling more than $70 million over the next five years.
Beyond each of us actively working toward solutions, our ongoing struggle cries out for the kind of coalition advocacy that drove many of the civil rights and economic victories in the 1960s. Between November 2012 and January 2013, I helped to organize a historic convening of civil rights, social justice, business and community leaders to identify and push for public policy priorities to drive economic recovery and rebirth for African-American and urban communities and all low-income and working-class Americans.
This policy agenda was embodied in an official communiqué that included specific recommendations to move us forward as a community. When I compare these recommendations with the demands made on that August afternoon in 1963, I am struck by how little has changed. In 1963, as today, the most pressing demands centered on economic equality, educational opportunity and parity, and civil rights.
But instead of fighting against discrimination in hiring or a $2 minimum wage, we’re fighting for job training and wage equity. Instead of calling for school segregation to end, we’re demanding an end to disparities in educational investment. Rather than calling for meaningful civil rights legislation, we’re fighting to preserve the rights our ancestors fought and died for and to retain the practical application of civil rights and equality through affirmative measures to achieve diversity in jobs and education.
Our experience since the Great March says that we must be vigilant in protecting our hard-won rights. To paraphrase William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus, we must become masters of our own fate to fully realize the economic prosperity we demanded on that day in 1963. If we are to honor Whitney M. Young, one of the unsung visionaries of the Great March and the Urban League’s leader from 1961-1971, we must not only be prepared to seize opportunity when it comes, we must be committed to creating opportunity when it does not.
Marc Moral is president and CEO of the National Urban League. This article – the twelfth of a 20-part series – is written in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.