President Saunders: 1963 March on Washington was also a march for worker rights

By AFSCME Staff ·

WASHINGTON – AFSCME members and leaders joined tens of thousands of people on the National Mall Saturday to mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the historic civil rights demonstration that marked a turning point in the struggle for racial and economic justice. 

AFSCME President Lee Saunders, one of dozens of high-profile speakers at the event, recalled that the original March on Washington, in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, was not just about fighting racial discrimination. 

“It was more than a protest against Jim Crow; it was a demonstration for labor rights,” Saunders said. “It was about fighting poverty, fighting prejudice, addressing segregation, addressing deprivation. It was about the unbreakable link between racial justice and economic justice.” 

Labor leaders played a key role in the march, held Aug. 28, 1963. A. Philip Randolph, then president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was the event’s main organizer alongside civil rights leader and activist Bayard Rustin. 

Saunders recalled the role played in the civil rights movement by “thirteen hundred fearless Black men,” all of them members of AFSCME Local 1733 in Memphis, Tenn., who a few years after the march “went on strike to assert their humanity, to demand dignity and to demand respect.” Their story inspired Dr. King to travel to Memphis to support them in 1968, where he was assassinated on April 4.  

The Saturday event, held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, was more than a commemoration of the original march, it was a continuation of Dr. King’s vision. Many of the speakers – including Dr. King’s son, Martin Luther King III, the Rev. Al Sharpton, members of Congress and leaders of labor unions and civil and human rights organizations – emphasized that the struggle for racial and economic justice is far from over. 

“Structural racism remains a brutal fact of American life – we bear its burden every single day,” Saunders said. “And the economy remains rigged against all working people.” 

Despite the progress of the last 60 years, much remains to be done. That’s why our union is committed to protecting and expanding labor rights, civil rights and voting rights, and to fighting for racial and economic justice for all.  

“This is a moment to be agitators for change,” Saunders said. “A moment to act on the fierce urgency of now. A moment that we all must come together and make our voices heard loud and clear. A moment of courage … for all of us, inspired by yesterday’s struggles but with resolve to build a better future.”