In 1963, more than 200,000 people joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a seminal moment for the civil rights movement that is often remembered for its call for legislation to end discrimination. What is often forgotten is that the marchers that day also called for economic opportunity, namely through a minimum wage increase to $2.00 an hour. Civil rights leaders of the day appreciated that civil rights could not be fully enjoyed without economic justice. Dr. King himself later asked, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn't earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?”

In 2014, raising the minimum wage is still key to achieving civil and human rights for all Americans. Struggling with low pay, fast food workers in 150 cities around the country engaged in sit-ins earlier this month, calling for raise in their industry. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage advocated during the March on Washington would be $13.50 today.  A wide range of civil rights, labor, business, faith, and other organizations and leaders have called for raising the wage to $10.10.


As documented in a new report published by our organizations, “Improving Wages, Improving Lives: Why raising the minimum wage is a civil and human rights issue,” proposals to raise the minimum wage and the subminimum wage for tipped workers would have a substantial impact on the lives of African Americans, Latinos, women, and LGBT individuals in particular.

Today’s federal minimum wage of only $7.25 fails to provide workers with dignity and the “decent standard of living” called for at the March on Washington. Raising the wage now would have an even greater impact today than in the 1960’s. Minimum wage workers today are significantly older, more educated, and contribute a greater share of their families’ income (50 percent on average) than often perceived. Last raised in 2009, the minimum wage is low by historical standards and inadequate for meeting the basic expenses faced by working families. At the same time, the subminimum wage that employers are required to pay tipped workers―the "tipped minimum wage"―has been frozen at just $2.13 for nearly a quarter century, opening up the largest gap in history between the minimum wage and the subminimum wage for tipped workers. While the law requires that tips be sufficient to raise wages for tipped workers to the standard minimum wage, enforcement is rare, leading to higher poverty and instability.

States and localities across the country― from West Virginia and Connecticut to Seattle, Washington, and Santa Fe, New Mexico―have acknowledged the problem and begun to raise their own minimum wages. Earlier this year, President Obama issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for those employed under federal contracts. But millions of other individ­uals, families, and communities are waiting for Congress to act.

There is a growing consensus among experts that raising the minimum wage to the levels currently advocated would have no or virtually no impact on employment.  One exten­sive review of the research concluded that, if there is any adverse effect on employment from raising the minimum wage, “it must be of a small and policy-irrelevant magnitude.”

Raising the minimum wage and subminimum wage for tipped workers wouldn’t just put money into the hands of hardworking families and our economy. A higher minimum wage would reduce poverty, ameliorate the dramatic rise in income inequality since the 1970s, and lessen the gender wage gap, especially for women of color.

For all these reasons and more, raising the minimum wage is essential to advancement of civil and human rights in America.

Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund. Edelmann is faculty director of Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.