On Saturday, August 24, 2013, social workers joined tens of thousands of other Americans to recognize and commemorate one of the most important mass expressions of social consciousness in this country’s history—The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The participants in the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march comprised a racially diverse crowd that also included inter-generational marchers, many of whom had been present at the original March on Washington. Besides the desire to be present at this historical event, many of the participants in the 2013 march were motivated by a general feeling that, while there have been significant gains in civil rights over the last 50 years, there are still many challenges ahead. In a summer that has seen the virtual gutting of the Voters Rights Act of 1965, and the racially charged response to the deadly shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin, the commemorative March on Washington took on greater significance.
Because the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom actually took place on August 28, 1963, the organizers held a second gathering on August 28, 2013. This second march recreated the path of the original assembly, ending with speeches at the Lincoln Memorial. The final and most anticipated speech was delivered by President Barack Obama. The significance of America’s first African American President as the featured speaker at the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington cannot be overstated. In that speech, President Obama skillfully connected the social justice and human rights challenges of 1963 to those of 2013. The following passage from the President’s speech effectively captures both the strides made in 50 years and the work yet to be done:
“To secure the gains that this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency. Whether by challenging those who erect new barriers to the vote or ensuring that the scales of justice work equally for all and the criminal justice system is not simply a pipeline from underfunded schools to overcrowded jails, it requires vigilance.” - President Barack Obama
This passage reiterated the President’s concern regarding the recent Supreme Court’s Voters Rights Act decision and the resulting increase of voter suppression efforts by a number of states. The passage also affirmed the President’s commitment to address racial disparities in the criminal and juvenile justice systems.
The President’s speech also addressed the need for economic justice and equality, particularly related to the need to close the vast income disparities between whites and blacks—noting that the percentage gap between black and white unemployment in 2013 is essentially the same as it was in 1963—20%. Additionally, in 1963, white unemployment was at 5% as compared to 10.9% for blacks. In 2013 data, the white unemployment rate was 6.6%, but 12.8% for blacks. These data support the President’s call for an end to disparities in employment for blacks and other minorities.
Lastly, NASW supports President Obama’s reaffirmation of the need to keep the social safety net intact. He characterized that need in moral terms by stating: “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm, The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
NASW and social workers overall have a long history of activism in civil and human rights; therefore NASW embraces the significance of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. In addition, NASW supports President Obama’s request that we remain vigilant and guard against those who would reverse the gains made since 1963 and commits to continued advocacy for voter rights, economic justice and a national commitment to keeping the social safety net firmly in place.
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The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, DC, is the largest membership organization of professional social workers with nearly 140,000 members. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.