Outraged by lawmakers’ refusal to fund education and health care, South Carolinians from across the state will rally at noon on the south side of the SC State House Jan. 14 to demand that lawmakers quit grandstanding and start governing.
The Truthful Tuesday Coalition – a grassroots campaign led by members of the faith community and advocacy organizations – is working to hold lawmakers accountable and to help the public understand the truth: South Carolina is not too broke to fund these core services. It simply lacks the political leadership to properly fund and manage responsible government.
“These are not political issues,” said Rev. Brenda Kneece, Executive Minister of the SC Christian Action Council. “These are moral issues we are called on to address.” The Council’s 16 denominations have endorsed the rally.
Gov. Nikki Haley led the opposition to reclaiming billions of our federal tax dollars to provide health care for South Carolina’s poorest citizens by refusing to participate in “Obamacare.” These federal funds would have expanded Medicaid to 250,000 people living below the poverty level.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA) was intended to provide health insurance to working people by subsidizing policies for people earning less than $45,000 a year, and to provide free coverage to those earning less than $11,490.
Refusing $1.4 billion to expand Medicaid this year means our state’s citizens will continue to have difficulty in accessing affordable care for costly chronic conditions and in accessing the ACA’s “essential health benefits” — not the least of which is cost-effective preventive care, warned Dr. David Keely, who heads the state’s chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program.
The SC Hospital Association estimates that the $11.7 billion in federal funding being refused through 2020 would create 44,000 jobs and generate enough tax revenue to completely offset the state’s 10 percent match required in 2020.
Dr. Robert Oldendick, Executive Director of the USC Institute for Public Service and Policy Research, reviewed a Harvard School of Public Health study on the consequences of states refusing the Medicaid expansion. “The study concluded that every 176 adults covered by Medicaid prevents one death each year. So if we assume that all 250,000 eligible South Carolinians were covered, about 1,420 deaths would be prevented annually.”
“It is unacceptable that our lawmakers are willing to throw our neighbors under the bus to make political points,” said SC Progressive Network Cochair Virginia Sanders, who works as one of the Network’s trained navigators helping people secure insurance through the health exchange. “It’s heart-breaking to tell people they are too poor to receive help. These are human beings; not numbers. They shouldn’t be political pawns.”
All 170 legislators and the governor have been invited to descend the State House steps at 12:30 to join the rally. Rep. Joe Neal will make a statement on behalf of legislators.
“One of our goals is to put a face on what is too often just an ideological debate,” said SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey. “We need 1,300 people to stand together on the State House grounds to symbolize the human cost of playing politics with people’s lives.”
The rally will also address lawmakers’ continued refusal to adequately fund education. “In 2013, K-12 funding was nearly $500 million below what is required by state law,” said Jackie Hicks, Executive Director of The SC Education Association. State higher education funding is 40 percent lower than it was in 2002, and tuition at our state colleges is among the nation’s highest.
The Coalition will be calling on legislators to address the fact that our state has the nation’s least-competitive elections, with nearly 80 percent of lawmakers facing no major opposition in the general election. “With only about half our citizens voting, and most of us only having one choice at the ballot box, it’s a shame that the legislature keeps trying to make it harder to vote rather than easier,” said Dr. Lonnie Randolph, President of the SC NAACP.
“The rally is a continuation of the work for sound public policies and a moral budget that we have been doing for years,” Bursey said. “The rally is not just an event; it is the launch of the next phase of our ongoing efforts.”
The hour-long rally will take place on the south side of the State House at noon on Jan. 14. The initial conveners are the SC Christian Action Council, The SC Education Association, SC NAACP, National Association of Social Workers, the SC AFL-CIO and the SC Progressive Network. Dozens of sponsoring organizations and churches, as well as information on the rally, transportation and parking, can be found at the coalition’s web site: TruthfulTuesday.net.
Free food and beverages will be available. Attendees are asked to wear black as a symbol of mourning for the 1,300 who will die this year is South Carolina because of petty partisan politics.
Contact the Coalition at 803-808-3384 or info@TruthfulTuesday.net.
The SC Progressive Network‘s Charleston Navigators are featured briefly in this MSNBC piece on the right wing’s latest war on “Obamacare.”
We anticipate legislation in January that will require Navigators to be licensed by the state Dept. of Insurance. ALEC-crafted bills requiring licensing requirements to make it almost impossible for anyone other than an insurance agent or broker to serve have passed in a number of “refusnick” states, and are expected here soon.
A bill to make it illegal for the City of Charleston (local governments) to offer space to Navigators, or help in anyway to implement the ACA, passed the SC House last session. The “Nullify Obamacare” bill is number two on the Senate’s agenda when it reconvenes Jan. 14.
By Kevin Alexander Gray
I was truly surprised that all our major daily paper could offer South Carolinians and the world after Nelson Mandela’s death was a 1998 picture of a 95-year-old Strom Thurmond holding up Mandela’s arm as though he’d just won a prizefight. The photo was snapped during the South African President’s visit to Washington to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
Conservative hardliners like U.S. Senators Thurmond of South Carolina and Jesse Helms of North Carolina, among others, supported Reagan’s position against the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which called for economic sanctions against the racist apartheid regime. Reagan vetoed the act when it came before him. He insisted that the 16 percent minority white population in power were “strategically essential to the free world,” although the 84 percent majority of black South Africa’s citizens (to include Coloureds and Asians) were being violently kept un-free.
Reagan and his supporters were on the wrong side of history. Fortunately, Congress ultimately overrode his veto.
Doubtless, Thurmond changed in later life from the segregationist firebrand he was a younger man — but not very much. I thought: Is this photo all the most widely circulated paper in South Carolina had to offer? Surely they had on file countless stories of the anti-apartheid activities in South Carolina.
Maybe someone thought the photo of Thurmond was funny or ironic. Maybe the person who posted the picture was at best, ignorant of history or, at worst trying to revise history by giving the photographic impression that Thurmond supported Mandela and the anti-apartheid cause. It would have been more accurate to locate a picture of Democratic Senator Ernest F. Hollings, who voted to override Reagan’s veto.
For me, telling the history of what was done in our state to advance the cause of freedom is a better story to tell.
A lot happened in the 1980s in the fight against apartheid that Columbia can be proud of. Like in 1985 when the City of Columbia barred any city investments that would benefit or encourage the racist South African government. The unanimously passed measure was introduced by then Councilman Luther Battiste.
Battiste’s counterpart on Council Rudy Barnes at the time said, “This is not a partisan or racial type motion at all” and that the “resolution sends the signal to politicians that we must distance ourselves from this type of oppression.”
Another council member, William Outzs added, “[T]his is further indication of this city’s support for human rights.”
Imagine trying to get City Council to pass a measure condemning a foreign government today.
Maybe there could have been mentioned how a year after the City of Columbia took action that then-South Carolina State Treasurer Grady L. Patterson withdrew $43 million in state investments from companies doing business in South Africa. Or, State Senator Theo Mitchell of Greenville’s efforts to pass an anti-apartheid bill in the State Legislature.
I’m sure somewhere there are pictures of the weekly pickets at what used to be the C&S Bank on Sumter Street to force them to stop selling the South African gold “krugerrand” coins. The picketers won.
There were also the Friday noon pickets on Pendleton Street in front of the University of South Carolina Educational Foundation offices that corresponded with the Carolina Peace Resource Center’s legal maneuvers to force the university to disclose and withdraw their holdings with companies that did business with South Africa. I believe that effort was the beginning of the end for then President James Holderman, who resigned in 1990 under fire over his hidden financial dealings.
Then there were the numerous student marches and rallies at the State House, along with participation in various regional and national marches. Students from Benedict, USC, South Carolina State, College of Charleston and many other campuses across the state took part.
There’s an activist history yet to be written. When it is, it will include familiar names like Modjeska Simkins and Nelson Rivers, then executive director of the state NAACP, Brett Bursey and his Grassroots Organizing Workshop [which grew into the SC Progressive Network], the USC Free South Africa Alliance, which at one point built and occupied a shanty in front of the Russell House to demonstrate and condemn bantustan living conditions of poor black South Africans.
There are lots of heroic people to write about in our local anti-apartheid efforts. They are “part of the collective,” which is how Mandela said he wanted to be remembered. Those are the people who should be highlighted. Strom Thurmond shouldn’t be our state’s reflexive default.
Since moving its offices into 2025 Marion St., the historic home of Modjeska Simkins, the SC Progressive Network has thrown a party in her honor on her birthday, Dec. 5. Modjeska lived in the home for 60 years, where she entertained friends such as Thurgood Marshall and others not welcome in the white-only motels of the day.
Modjeska was the larger-than-life matriarch of South Carolina’s progressive movement. She spent her long life (1899-1992) acting on her belief that civil rights were just part of a larger human rights struggle. She was ahead of her time, often the only black woman at the table, and was never shy about speaking her mind.
The public is invited to a casual drop-in on Thursday, Dec. 5, between 5:30 and 7:30pm. The event is free and open to all. Light hors d’oeuvres and refreshments; cash bar. Friends, family and colleagues will be invited to share their stories of Modjeska.
See photos from last year’s gathering.
At last year’s party James Felder read a passage about Modjeska from his book Civil Rights in South Carolina: From Peaceful Protest to Groundbreaking Rulings.
To preserve the fighting spirit of Modjeska Monteith Simkins, the SC Progressive Network is establishing a school to teach a new generation of activists the skills to be effective leaders in their communities and in their government. The school will launch in early 2014. To follow the school’s progress, join us on Facebook.
Donations for the project are always welcome, as are your ideas. Contact the Network at 803-808-3384 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the SC Progressive Network’s Lead Navigator in Charleston, Loreen Myerson:
Dear Friends, Trusted Allies, and Valued Volunteers:
I am writing to request your help with a matter of great urgency. The demand for Affordable Care Act (ACA) Marketplace policies has been intense since its historic launch on Oct. 1. As an ACA navigator for the SC Progressive Network, it has been my honor to assist dozens of SC families in enrolling in comprehensive health insurance policies at a reduced cost.
I have spoken with hundreds of members of civic groups throughout our region, educating them about the implications of the ACA for South Carolina’s families and small businesses. Yet, obviously, no one person can meet this great need alone. That’s why I’m writing to you.
On Monday, Dec. 2, the SC Progressive Network will launch its Lowcountry Surge Center at 360 Concord St. in Charleston, on Fountain Walk, near the aquarium. I ask you to please sign up for a shift or three between Dec. 2 and Dec. 13 to help folks to improve their lives by enrolling in the Affordable Care Act Marketplace policies.
We will have trained healthcare navigators and certified application counselors on hand to meet with the public both by appointment and on a walk-in basis. Additionally, we require volunteers to make the public feel comfortable and welcome as they arrive; register voters; supervise children in the arts and crafts area; answer phones and schedule appointments; distribute flyers, etc. We will be working hard, but we will celebrate with each new application.
Please take a moment to review the sign-up sheet here.
For more information, call (843) 475-2859.
Failing to learn from history, in May the SC House passed the “Freedom of Health Care Protection Act ” on a party-line vote. The bill claims that the state has the power to “render null and void” the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress and upheld by the US Supreme Court.
This Tea Party sequel to the War of Northern Aggression is the latest reason why people roll their eyes when you say you are from South Carolina.
Beaufort County Sen. Tom Davis has put together a Senate Select Committee to hold public hearings on the bill the first week in November (times and locations below). Davis, a Tea Party favorite, was recently skewered in Mother Jones for lamenting the Confederate loss at Gettysburg.
Please attend one of the hearings and, in the nicest way possible, tell senators that the ACA has given Americans new rights and benefits, ending lifetime and most annual limits on care, covering preexisting conditions, and giving patients access to free preventive services. The ACA has problems, but it moves us in the right direction of having everyone covered and lowering costs.
The real problem is the fear too many lawmakers have of Tea Party opposition in the 2014 Republican primary. With 80 percent of SC legislators winning their seats with no general opposition, winners are chosen by a majority of the 10 percent who vote in the primary. This dynamic yields a state government prone to cruel delusion.
Our legislature, cheered on by Gov. Nikki Haley, refused to take back 1.4 billion of our federal tax dollars to expand Medicaid and cover some 300,000 of our poorest neighbors. These people will continue to go to emergency rooms and drive up costs. Instead of having a doctor and preventative care, they are collateral damage in an ideological war against the president’s signature policy achievement.
Because of the state’s failure to take the money, an estimated 1,319 people will die for lack of care.
The are literally killing people – lots of them – for a few hundred votes in the primary. Keep in mind all these anti-Obamacare legislators have state government health insurance. Add insult to injury, our tax dollars will now go to other states.
The governor says that we can’t afford the 10 percent matching funds in 2017 to take the billion plus a year to expand Medicaid. It’s a 100 percent grant we are turning down for the next three years. But in fact, eliminating the $300 sales tax cap on luxury cars, yachts and planes would fund the Medicaid expansion.
In other words, the state is not broke; its leaders are morally bankrupt.
Since SC refused to set up a state health insurance exchange, the feds have issued grants to nonprofit groups to help people navigate the insurance marketplace set up by the ACA. These exchanges are intended to hold down costs through comparative pricing, and offer reduced cost policies to lower-income applicants.
A minimum-wage earner in SC ($15,400) will pay around $20 a month for a $4,100 insurance policy. The subsidies are taken off the top, and are not a rebate after payment. The subsidies cover people making between 100 percent to 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
Medicaid expansion would have provided free health care for those earning less than $11,490 a year. Because South Carolina refused the expansion, the insurance subsides don’t apply to those in poverty.
The SC Progressive Network received one of the grants, and has 10 Navigators who are certified to help people buy insurance through the federal exchange. Other than the hysteria generated over the government web portal not working, the hardest part of the job is telling people who live in poverty that in South Carolina there is no help for them. That policy that cost a fast food worker $240 a year is full-price for them: $4,100.
When they ask why, we tell them to ask their legislator and their governor.
Public hearings on bill to nullify “Obamacare”
Greenville: Tuesday, Nov. 5, 6pm-8pm
Greenville County Public Library, 25 Heritage Green Place
Columbia: Wednesday, Nov. 6, 10am-noon
SC Senate Gressette Building, Columbia, SC Room 209 G – meeting room
North Charleston: Wednesday, Nov. 6, 6pm-8pm
North Charleston City Hall, Third Floor, Council Chambers, 2500 City Hall Lane
The timing couldn’t be better for the SC Progressive Network’s annual fall retreat at historic Penn Center Oct. 19-20, as political gridlock in DC and the mess over South Carolina’s refusal to participate in “Obamacare” has underscored how dysfunctional our political system had become. People are angry and looking for action.
“Our registration is already double what it usually is, and we are looking forward to a spirited and productive weekend,” said Network Director Brett Bursey. “Since the Network was founded, we have been organizing to build a progressive movement in South Carolina that can effectively represent the interests of working families. The dire predictions we have been forecasting have become real. This is no longer just an ideological discussion.”
South Carolina has been at the mercy of anti-government politicians who don’t believe in taxes and who claim that our state is too broke to meet the responsibilities of a civilized society. The truth is, that while South Carolina has the nation’s lowest combined state and federal taxes, and gives away more in special-interest tax breaks than it collects, our leaders claim we are too broke to fund our schools and government at mandated levels. Their refusal to participate in the Affordable Care Act means over 300,000 of our citizens will not get health care.
“We’re not broke; our leadership is morally bankrupt,” Bursey said. “We will take our fight to a new level in 2014, and we’ll be making plans to do that at Penn.”
Months before the threat of government shutdown, Network Cochair Donna Dewitt met US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and invited him to Penn Center. He accepted, hoping to find answers to a question he’d been pondering: why working people in states like ours keep voting against their own interests.
In the past weeks, Sen. Sanders, has emerged as a leading voice of reason in the ideological war raging in Washington. On Saturday at Penn, the public is invited to hear him discuss the shutdown and other matters facing a country in crisis. Registration begins at 9am; the senator will speak at 10, followed by Q&A. This portion of the program is free, but all are welcome to stay for the rest of the day’s program and for the evening’s fish fry.Among the most progressive members of Congress, Sen. Sanders recently introduced the “Democracy is for People” bill for a constitutional amendment to establish that corporations are not people and money is not speech. He’s promoted progressive interests on the Hill since 1991, including Social Security, universal health care and workers’ rights.
Participants who don’t need accommodations or meals can register for $10. The Saturday night fish fry and entertainment is $15.The weekend package is $125, and includes conference materials, all meals, and accommodations in one of Penn’s refurbished dorms. It also covers Saturday night’s fish fry with all the trimmings and entertainment by singer/organizer Jane Sapp and satirist Dave Lippman.
Sapp recorded Carry It On, an album of movement songs, with Pete Seeger. She was a civil rights movement leader, former director of Highlander Center and established the first museum at Penn Center in 1971. She now heads the cultural committee of the Southern Partners Fund. She will be joined on stage Saturday by songster Lippman, who “afflicts the complacent, takes the air out of windbags, and updates worn-out songs with parody.”
The public is invited to come for the whole weekend, a day, or just part of the program. Call 803-808-3384 for details, or see www.scpronet.com.
The SC Progressive Network is among the nonprofit organizations in South Carolina to receive a grant from the US Dept. of Health and Human Services to train and manage insurance marketplace navigators.
The Network’s navigators are helping people understand their health insurance options, and purchase an individual, family, or small business plan as required by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Network is providing this service because the SC legislature refused to set up a state-run exchange.
People who make between $11,500 and $46,000 are eligible for reduced price policies. But 280,000 South Carolinians who make less than $11,500 will have to pay full price for insurance. The ACA was designed to expand Medicaid to provide free health care to those in poverty.
South Carolina’s Republican leadership refused to take the $1.4 billion federal grant to expand Medicaid and provide healthcare for the poor. Gov. Nikki Haley led opposition to “Obamacare,” claiming that South Carolina couldn’t afford the 10% matching funds ($140 million) it would have to pay beginning in 2020.
We’d remind folks that eliminating just one of the state’s 80 sales tax exemptions could cover the cost of expanding Medicaid. Raising the $300 sales tax cap on luxury cars, yachts and private planes to the regional average would raise $160 million next year. That’s just one of the exemptions that leaves more than $2.4 billion in revenue out of our budget.
For information or help in applying for insurance through the federal health exchange, call the Network Navigators at 803-445-1921 or email email@example.com.
SC Progressive Network Director Brett Bursey wrote this tribute to his mentor, Modjeska Monteith Simkins, upon the occasion of her death. It ran in the May 1992 issue of POINT, four years before the newspaper was archived online. Here is a scan of the piece. Click on the image to enlarge.
The article is among the research materials being assembled for the Network’s latest project, establishing the Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights, set to launch Dec. 5, on what would have been Modjeska’s 114th birthday. Follow the progress of the project on Facebook. For more information, contact the Network at 803-808-3384 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To preserve the fighting spirit of Modjeska Monteith Simkins, the SC Progressive Network is establishing a school to teach a new generation of activists the skills to be effective leaders in their communities and in their government.
Modjeska was the larger-than-life matriarch of South Carolina’s progressive movement. She spent her long life (1899-1992) acting on her belief that civil rights were just part of a larger human rights struggle. She was ahead of her time, often the only black woman at the table, and was never shy about speaking her mind.
The Modjeska Simkins School for Human Rights will be based in the home she lived in for 60 years, where she entertained friends such as Thurgood Marshall and others not welcome in the white-only motels of the day. The home, at 2025 Marion St. in downtown Columbia, now serves as the Network’s office and meeting space.
A generous grant from the Richland County Conservation Commission is being used as seed money. An advisory committee has been meeting to outline a curriculum, to oversee the research and production of course materials, and to map out a funding plan to sustain the project.
The school will launch on Dec. 5, on what would have been Ms. Simkins’ 114th birthday. Mark your calendars and plan to join us for a big party. The Network has celebrated Modjeska’s birthday for many years, but this one promises to be truly special. See photos from last year’s gathering, and the year before.
To follow the school’s progress, join us on Facebook. Donations for the project are always welcome, as are your ideas. Contact the Network at 803-808-3384 or email@example.com.
Maybe the only thing better than seeing historic Penn Center as a tourist is to experience it as a grassroots activist, in the true spirit of the place. You can do that at the Network’s fall retreat Oct. 19-20.
Started as a school for freed enslaved people in 1862, Penn later became a conference center and meeting place for movement organizers. At our retreat, we’ll gather in the same hall where Joan Baez once sang to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was also in that hall that the Network was founded in 1996. Over the years, the Network has returned many times to map strategy and talk politics.
“It’s been four years since we’ve been to Penn Center, and I’m looking forward to going back,” said Network Co-chair Donna Dewitt. “It is a special place with such a rich history, and the setting always inspires us.”
The weekend is a unique chance for the Network’s members, friends and allies get away to the beautiful Lowcountry for a chance to recharge, reconnect, and refocus.
Knowing that sometimes the most valuable part of the retreat is time spent talking to each other one-on-one, there will be down time for that.
“The weekend will be a mix of workshops, strategy sessions, and taking care of in-house business,” said Network Director Brett Bursey.
“We’ll also be working on current Network projects, with a special focus on the mass action we’re planning for the legislature when it reconvenes in January. We’re putting a lot of thought and effort into the event, and we need all hands on deck to make it as powerful and broad-based as we believe it can be.”
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I – VT) will fire up the crowd on Saturday morning. Among the most progressive members of Congress, he recently introduced the “Democracy is for People” bill for a constitutional amendment to establish that corporations are not people and money is not speech. He’s promoted progressive interests on the Hill since 1991, including Social Security, universal health care and workers’ rights.
Network member groups will be invited to share their victories and challenges in the past year, and to solicit support for projects and campaigns they’re working on now.
The weekend package is $125, and includes conference materials, all meals, and accommodations in one of Penn’s refurbished dorms. It also covers Saturday night’s fish fry with all the trimmings and entertainment by nationally known singer/organizer Jane Sapp and satirist Dave Lippman.
Sapp recorded Carry It On, an album of movement songs, with Pete Seeger and Si Kahn. She was a civil rights movement leader, former director of Highlander Center and established the first museum at Penn Center in 1971. She now heads the cultural committee of the Southern Partners Fund, which helped fund our retreat.
She will be joined on stage Saturday by songster Lippman, who afflicts the complacent, takes the air out of windbags, and updates worn-out songs with parody. Song samples: All We Are Saying is End Corporate Crime, and I Hate Wal-Mart.
Come for the whole weekend, a day, or just part of the program. Overnight space is limited, so make your reservations now. If you need a ride or can share one, call 803-808-3384.
Share/RSVP on Facebook.
Saturday, Oct. 19
9 am – Registration, Frissell Hall
10 – Welcome and introductions. Who’s at the table?
10:15 – US Sen. Bernie Sanders, followed by Q and A
11:15 – The SC Progressive Network: Who we are, why we are, how we win
11:45 - Current policy priorities: voting rights, ethics reform, Medicaid expansion, moral budget
12:30 – Catered lunch and free time for networking, policy caucuses, or sight-seeing
2pm – Network member organizations report on what they accomplished last year and what’s ahead
2:30 – Mass action planning, plenary session
4:30 – Breakout caucuses, to be decided by retreat-goers. Possible topics: public transit, labor organizing, gay rights, homeless policies, reproductive rights, animal welfare, immigration reform, environmental protection
6:30 - Fish fry; music by Jane Sapp and Dave Lippman
Sunday, Oct. 20
8 am – Breakfast in cafeteria
9 – Sunday service. The proletarian vanguard, spiritual seekers, peace warriors, the curious are all welcome
9:30 – Cultural workshop with Jane Sapp
10:30 – Network business: elections, treasurer’s report, new Network chapters’ form and function
Noon – Lunch in cafeteria
1pm – Homework assignments, action plan recap and caucus reports
Adjourn c-3 portion of program
2pm – Progressive Voter Coalition update, projections and election strategies
3 – Adjourn
And the real work begins…
FULL WEEKEND package: $125
Day registration, no meals: $10
Saturday w/lunch & dinner: $35
Fish fry and entertainment: $15
Sunday registration and lunch: $20
If you want to come early, add $50 for Friday night room and Sat. breakfast.
Mail check to SCPN, POB 8325, Columbia, SC 29202. Or call 803-808-3384 to pay by credit card. To join the Network or update your membership, include $25 ($10 for students and seniors) in your fee.
By Bill Fletcher, Jr.
August 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Publicly associated with Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, this march brought more than 250,000 people to the nation’s capital. The day went down in history as a powerful show of force against Jim Crow segregation. Over time this great event has risen to levels of near mythology. The powerful speech by Dr. King, replayed, in part, for us every January on Martin Luther King Day, has eclipsed all else—so much so that too many people believe that the March on Washington was entirely the work of Dr. King.
It is also barely remembered that the March on Washington was for freedom and jobs. In fact, The Americans, a high school history text by publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, tells students that the march was called simply “to persuade Congress to pass the [1963 civil rights] bill.” In reality, the demand for jobs was not a throwaway line designed to get trade union support. Instead it reflected the growing economic crisis affecting black workers.
Indeed, while Dr. King was a major player, the March on Washington did not begin as a classic civil rights march and was not initiated by him. There is one constituency that can legitimately claim the legacy of the march—one that has been eclipsed in both history as well as in much of the lead-up to the August 2013 commemorations: black labor.
Initiated by A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the march became a joint project with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Randolph and other black labor leaders, particularly those grouped around the Negro American Labor Council, were responding to the fact that the black worker was largely being ignored in the discussions about civil rights. In addition, the economic situation was becoming complicated terrain for black workers.
As historian Nancy MacLean has pointed out, the elements of what came to be known as deindustrialization—which was really part of a reorganization of global capitalism—were beginning to have an effect in the United States, even in 1963. As with most other disasters, it started with a particular and stark impact on black America.
It is also barely remembered that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee played a key role in the event. The civil rights leadership insisted that the militant rhetoric of the original speech by SNCC’s then-chairman John Lewis—now Congressman John Lewis—be toned down. Reading U.S. history textbooks, students are seldom even introduced to the words of Lewis or other speakers. Here is Pearson’s U.S. history textbook coverage:
“Many people, including Christian and Jewish religious leaders, gave speeches that day, but none moved the crowd as did King. His voice rang as he proclaimed, ‘l have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skins but the content of their character.’”
Teaching about the March on Washington presents a series of challenges precisely because it involves counteracting sanitized textbooks and demythologizing not only the march, but also the Black Freedom Struggle—the Civil Rights Movement, as it became known. As such, there are a few points that cannot be overlooked if we want to honor the march’s true story:
1. The context.?The idea for the march in 1963 did not appear out of nowhere, and the fact that A. Philip Randolph originated it was no accident. The notion of the March on Washington in 1963 was, in certain respects, the revival of an idea from 1941 when Randolph convened a group to plan a march on Washington, D.C. to protest the segregation of the growing war industry. That march, which was planned as a black march on Washington, never happened because the mere threat of 100,000 African Americans marching forced President Franklin Roosevelt to give in to the demand for an executive order bringing about formal desegregation of the war industry.
2. The actual march was the result of work that began in the 1950s.?Although conceptualized by Randolph, the march was actually the result of the increasing tempo of a social movement. It could not have been organized in a little more than six months—as it was—if it had not been connected to local organizing that had gone on for decades in NAACP youth councils, churches, unions, women’s groups, and more. It was not individuals who chartered buses from all over the country—it was organizations.
3. The march’s principal organizer was Bayard Rustin.?This year President Obama will posthumously award Bayard Rustin the Medal of Freedom, however teaching about Rustin complicates the simplistic Civil Rights narrative offered to students by corporate history textbooks. Rustin was a gay pacifist with a long history of organizing, but despite his record of achievements, homophobia led to him being denied the title of national director of the march—technically, he served under Randolph.
Rustin closed the march with a list of demands and had everyone pledge “that I will not relax until victory is won.” He was a complicated character who remained in organized labor and became a mentor to many, especially to younger activists in the burgeoning gay rights movement. At the same time, he refused to later condemn the Vietnam War and was critical of the Black Power Movement.
4. The march was controversial on many levels within the Black Freedom Movement.?Individuals, such as Malcolm X, were critical of it, albeit in a contradictory manner, claiming that it would not amount to anything. And there were those within the march who, like then-SNCC chairman John Lewis, wanted a more militant posture.
5. The economic situation for African Americans was not addressed in any fundamental manner in the aftermath of the march.?There were periodic improvements, but the crisis that Randolph and the NALC saw brewing in the early 1960s took on the features of a catastrophe by the mid to late 1970s, a fact that we have been living with ever since. Divorcing “civil rights” from economic justice is a feature common to mainstream approaches to history, including those found in school curricula.
6. The entirety of Dr. King’s August 28, 1963 address should be read.?What comes across is something very different from the morally righteous and tame “I Have a Dream!” clips and textbook soundbites usually offered around the time of Dr. King’s birthday. In fact, the speech is a militant and audacious indictment of Jim Crow segregation and the situation facing African Americans.
To truly honor the legacy of this anniversary, teachers should have students compare the King of the actual speech with the King from the clips. It would also be useful to have students read and discuss some of the day’s other speeches. For example, in Randolph’s opening speech he proclaimed that those gathered before him represented “the advance guard of a massive moral revolution” aimed at creating a society where “the sanctity of private property takes second place to the sanctity of the human personality.” This is a sentiment that we never hear about that day.
This 50th anniversary of the March on Washington also offers an opportunity to connect the issues and experiences of 1963 with current realities. In 2013, black workers have been largely abandoned in most discussions about race and civil rights. As National Black Worker Center Project founder Steven Pitts has repeatedly pointed out, with the economic restructuring that has destroyed key centers of the black working class, such as Detroit and St. Louis, much of the economic development that has emerged has either avoided the black worker altogether or limited the role of black workers to the most menial positions. Thus, unemployment for blacks remains more than double that of whites and hovers around Depression levels in many communities.
We can all do justice to this anniversary by asking the right questions and providing the actual historical context in which the 1963 March unfolded. More so, we can also offer, as Rustin asked the marchers in 1963, our “personal commitment to the struggle for jobs and freedom for Americans. . .and the achievement of social peace through social justice. How do you pledge?”
Bill Fletcher Jr. is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an editorial board member and columnist for BlackCommentator.com and a senior scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Fletcher is the co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press) and ‘They’re Bankrupting Us!’ And 20 Other Myths about Unions (Beacon Press).