I was was there on the mall on Aug. 28, 1963, just 150 yards from where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.
It was the high point of the 1963 Washington Civil Rights March and the public acceptance of the civil rights movement itself. The full name of the event was the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." And therein lies a problem: the insertion of that word "jobs."
The march marked the high point of the civil rights movement. Dr. King knew he had officially won the segregation/discrimination battle because the Kennedy Administration was sponsoring civil rights legislation. The sit-ins in 1960, the freedom riders in 1961 and the Birmingham confrontations in 1963 crescendoed to the march and eventually legislation. Congress did pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 setting up the end of legal segregation. With the insertion of the word "jobs," Dr. King was pivoting from social and race issues to economic justice and Vietnam.
The planning for the march took place with suspicions and tensions very high - for all the wrong reasons. The people with money feared, with some justification, that the Civil Rights Movement would carry over its confrontation and civil disobedience to issues that actually involved money. The unions had, in fact, joined the march, and the militant, black nationalist Malcolm X was cooperating. But so was the Kennedy Administration and the major religions and civic organizations.


The movement had become almost respectable. The mood at the march was excitement over shared purpose and accomplishment. It was a happy and excited crowd, much like the first Obama Inauguration. I was there, too. The security forces, 6,000 police officers and 20,000 military, mostly kept in the suburbs, were not the overpowering presence of fences, SWAT teams and armored vehicles that we see the police using today for even minor gatherings like Occupy Wall Street and Zuccotti Park.
The speech was originally titled "Normalcy, Never Again" and through the first half Dr. King stuck with that theme, demanding that America make good on the economic promissory note that is the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Dr. King was making the point that without the security of a job, freedom was meaningless.
Halfway through the speech, Mahalia Jackson cried out: "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" It is not unusual in black churches for the congregation to vocally lead the minister in the development of an evolving sermon. Dr. King picked up on the dream meme, something that he felt strongly about and had used frequently. The rest of the speech was extemporaneous and defiant: "I have a dream!" That call then became the iconic battle cry that marks the day, the speech and the man.
Unfortunately, economic justice was lost in the excitement of the moment when that was what the march was supposed to be all about. The march was hijacked by those who actually opposed economic justice and supported the Vietnam war. They could accept civil rights but not economic rights. They still can't. The march remains unfinished.
In 1963, the inclusion of the word jobs in the title of the march was very scary to those people who lend money and control investment. Their fear was made official by the FBI which wrote, commenting on the speech, that Dr. King was "the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security." Then began in anti-King program of surveillance, intimidation and smear by the FBI.
Now, 50 years later, the jobs problem remains with us, more pressing even than it was in 1963. Things have gotten worse not better. For 20 million people with no jobs or part-time jobs, freedom is a hollow promise. The black unemployment rate remains twice the national average, and the national average is twice what it was in 1963. A recent Pew Research study shows little if any closure of the black-white economic and political gap.
But the jobs problem is shrugged off. We have a second jobless recovery but no one seems worried. The Federal Reserve is considering going back to prioritizing inflation over unemployment.
The official 50-year commemoration at the Lincoln Memorial is titled "Let Freedom Ring Commemoration." The organizers of the "commemoration" are those people not interested in jobs or economic security. There is no call for jobs that I can find in any of the official statements. There is no condemnation of the widespread attack on voting rights. Scanning the schedule of events, I could find only two mentions of jobs and freedom. One at the Poverty Institute of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the other Al Sharpton's National Action Network.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom built on years of bloodshed, suffering and guts. Every generation has to learn over again the hard lesson that power responds only to demands backed up by people willing to put themselves on the line. Those people are in short supply.