Grandfather, son, grandson reflect on economic equality

Civil rights Leaders hold hands as they lead a crowd of hundreds of thousands at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington DC, August 28, 1963. Those in attendance include (front row): James Meredith and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929 - 1968), left; (L-R) Roy Wilkins (1901 - 1981), light-colored suit, A. Phillip Randolph (1889 - 1979) and Walther Reuther (1907 - 1970).

In the summer of 1963, Donald Cash Sr. was 18 years old and living at home with his parents in Washington, D.C. He was working fulltime in the warehouse of a women’s clothing store, called Frank R. Jellef Co., earning $1.15 an hour. He says, even then, his wages didn’t afford him much.

“Matter of fact, I remember I used to save everything I could,” Cash said. “I used to walk to 14th and Columbia Road -- it’s about 20-plus blocks -- just to save the bus fare. It was about 20 cents each way.”

On August 28th, he’d started work at 5 a.m., so when he finished his shift early that afternoon, Cash joined the crowd of people headed to the Lincoln Memorial. He says he can still remember the oppressive humidity, and the sea of faces. “It was the first time I had ever seen that many different colors of people. Blacks and whites in harmony, walking together -- I had never seen that before.”

Cash only stayed a few hours, but he was struck by the marchers’ demands for racial and economic equality. Fifty years later, he returned to the National Mall to celebrate the anniversary of the March on Washington with his son and grandson, Donald Cash Jr. and Donald Cash III.

In 1965, Cash become one of the first black meat cutters at Giant, a chain of grocery stores. He started out as an apprentice, earning $95 a week with full benefits -- a huge step up. Cash says, at the time, the only jobs available to African Americans in supermarkets involved loading groceries into cars or cleaning up spilled product in the aisles.

Cash entered the middle class about five years later when he became the first black union organizer for the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America.

“When I was able to buy a house in 1973, I remember the feeling I had,” Cash said. “There is no feeling like that accomplishment. It was the American dream. I thought I had made it.”

Cash was able to give his four kids more than he had growing up, sending two of them to Catholic school and later on, to college.

He would bring his son, Donald Cash Jr., now 43, to labor actions. Cash Jr. remembers one time in particular, when employees were protesting low wages at a furniture store.

“Management just thought they could treat them any kind of way,” Cash Jr. said. “It was really educating me that I had to finish school but also… to try to do my part to help people.”

Cash Jr. ended up following in his fathers’ footsteps -- he’s a union rep for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400.

Cash Jr. says his biggest concern for his kids is that they get a good education and learn to be independent and productive citizens.

Eight-year-old Donald Cash III said his favorite subjects are math and science because he “likes the experiments.”

Cash III wants to be a basketball player when he grows up. When pressed by his father and grandfather to come up with a backup plan, he said, “I like football, but I don’t want to get injured.”

As a grandfather, Cash Sr. says he is concerned for future generations. He’s not sure his grandkids will have the opportunities that he did. And as a longtime labor organizer, he’s also concerned about the gap between the rich and the poor and the poverty rate.

“Dr. Martin Luther King dreamed of, you know, everybody being equal, and race not being an issue,” Cash said. “That sounds great, but in reality, we’re still dreaming. Yes, there has been progress, but there’s a long way to go.”

About the author

Caitlin Esch is an Associate Producer on the Wealth & Poverty desk.

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