NCLEJ Executive Director Reflects on 50th Anniversary of March on Washington

MARCH_000Half a century has passed since that sunny day when my future wife and I, both working as interns in Washington, stood on the Mall as Martin Luther King set out his thrilling dream for this nation – and spoke of the change that was needed. It is shameful, he said, that African-Americans were living “on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

Over the next five years Dr. King returned repeatedly to the issue of poverty. In 1968, with the urging of Marian Wright Edelman, he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the Poor People’s Campaign. After his death, the SCLC brought thousands of people to Washington to address Congress and federal agencies on the issues of poverty.

Jesse Jackson and Marian Wright Edelman, representing the Campaign, met with HEW Secretary Wilbur Cohen and urged him to consider many changes in health, education, and welfare policy supported by poor peoples’ organizations. This led to an invitation to NCLEJ (then the Center on Social Welfare Policy and Law at Columbia University) and representatives of the National Welfare Rights Organization to develop specific proposals to improve administration of the Aid to Families with Children Program. A series of meetings with HEW staff followed, and many of our suggestions were incorporated into new regulations.

Several years later the Nixon Administration repealed or gutted many of those regulations, but the principles they established were incorporated into the Medicaid and SNAP programs and protect low-income people to this day. One – the right to proper notice and a hearing before aid is terminated – was further secured in our landmark 1970 Supreme Court victory in Goldberg v. Kelly and continues as a mainstay of our litigation. Others, such as fair treatment of applicants and recipients and simplified application forms and processes, are still important areas of work to which we are devoted.

As my wife and I stood again on the Mall on August 25, 2013, on the 50th Anniversary of that march, we celebrated the great strides our nation has made over the past half century. At last, millions more low-income Americans will have access to health care under the Affordable Care Act.

Yet poverty and unemployment are crippling our nation. Income inequality at historic levels is tearing at the social contract. A yawning gender wage gap persists. Social programs meeting basic human needs are under sustained attack. “Dreamers” await immigration reform. And, as Gina Mannix and I report in an article in the September/October 2013 issue of the Clearinghouse Review, researchers continue to find rampant institutional racism in the way policies are developed and discretionary decisions made in the administration of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program.

Fifty years ago Martin Luther King thundered, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” We at NCLEJ are not satisfied, and re-dedicate ourselves to realizing Dr. King’s dream.

Henry Freedman
Executive Director
National Center for Law and Economic Justice