50 years of Jobs and Freedom: The role of education in achieving the March on Washington’s goals

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On August 28, 1963 thousands of individuals, spanning a continuum of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, converged on our nation’s capital to advocate for equal rights for African-Americans.

The March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom was about more than employment or personal gain – it was about collectively affirming dignity and human rights while improving life prospects for future generations of African-Americans.

On this 50th anniversary, many will celebrate how far our nation has come toward achieving equality for all. This is only right. It is also right to reflect on the work still to be done. Why did we march for “Jobs and Freedom?” What did it mean then, and what does it mean today?

Then it meant that African-Americans weren’t guaranteed an equal shot at either. It was socially acceptable to discriminate based on race – this applied to jobs, housing, and everyday activities like riding a bus or sitting at a lunch counter. So deep-seated was the historical racism of the Jim Crow era, and so keenly felt by African-Americans was the economic pressure created by limited opportunity and the crush of poverty, that jobs and freedom were placed at the top of the March on Washington agenda.

Organizers of the March drafted a set of goals, including meaningful passage of civil rights legislation, a federal law prohibiting discrimination in workplace hiring, and the elimination of school segregation. The march demanded the nation’s attention and drove change. It is widely credited with helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Jobs and freedom were advanced – and legislative measures were achieved – by the march on Washington. July 2013 saw a 12.6 percent unemployment rate for African-Americans – more than twice that of whites. Despite tremendous progress, and the hard work of passionate individuals of all races, access to jobs and freedom has not been equalized for African-Americans.

And just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said to those standing captivated at the Reflecting Pool that day, it would be fatal to overlook the urgency of the moment. We’re collectively failing to consistently support positive life options for low-income students of color.

Lack of workforce representation has everything to do with the educational opportunities to which low-income and minority youth have access, and the structural inequities still prevalent in our systems. A child’s skin color and zip code too often determine the quality of education he or she receives.

In 2011, 84 percent of African-American fourth graders were reading below grade level, compared to 58 percent of white fourth graders. In high school, African-Americans are twice as likely to drop out – a statistic made even more alarming when one considers that high school dropouts have three times the unemployment rate of college graduates, and males who drop out are 47 times more likely than college graduates to be incarcerated.

The data points have a devastating effect on the individual students, and the families and communities who are impacted by a generation of young people who are not being given the opportunities to achieve their full potential in the classroom or workplace. “Unacceptable” doesn’t even begin to describe what we’re seeing.

The mighty force of change brought about by the march was a result of individuals, organizations, and communities coming together to right a great injustice. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Negro American Labor Council, enlisted individuals from the NAACP, National Urban League, Congress of Racial Equality, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference to organize the march.

Alone these individuals were great, but when they united fifty years ago they changed the course of our nation. When we look back 50 years from now, will we be able to say the same?

As vice president of African-American Community Partnerships for Teach For America, I believe solving educational inequity will require sustained work from all of us across organizations and sectors. We only need to look back at the March on Washington to know that coordinated effort achieved more than the sum of its parts. Collaboration is key to creating the just and equitable system our children’s futures demand. And so I urge you to take up the torch carried by those who marched 50 years ago.

“Jobs and Freedom” will be fully realized when we can no longer say that demographics are destiny. When no matter where a child grows up, they have access to a world-class education and all of the doors it opens. When all children are given the skills to write their own destiny.

Together, and only together, we will get there.