Martin Luther King, Civil Rights, and Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street is the Civil Rights Movement of our time. I’m not ashamed to say it. I don’t think it’s offensive or ahistorical. I don’t think it dishonours Martin Luther King’s name or legacy. In fact, I think the broader Occupy movement honours MLK, and he would have been a proud supporter of it.
When I refer to OWS, or the Occupy movement, what I mean is the fight against economic inequality. That’s economic inequality in America, and economic inequality throughout the world.
Right-wingers, conservatives, even libertarian racists like Ron Paul like to claim King’s mantle for themselves. Heck even Glenn Beck tried. They say that King was all about colour-blindess. Equality of opportunity. We were with MLK until 1965″ they say, but after that, it became about equality of condition, of entitlement, the road to socialism or serfdom and some-such doomsday dystopia.
Well that’s bullshit. I say that as a student of history. That’s just wrong. Watch the clip. MLK calls for a “radical redistribution of political and economic power.” He says: “If a man doesn’t have a job or income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness.” And of course: “all labour has dignity.” And “it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages.”
Martin Luther King was a religious social democrat. He believed in social justice. In government assisting the poor. In supporting unions. He believed in REAL equal opportunity, which can only come about when healthcare, and education, and safety can be provided to all. He was the anti-Ayn Rand: he despised selfishness. You don’t believe me? Take Paul Krugman’s word for it. Or this awesome video by Jay Smooth.
Some people still might think this my analogy ridiculous and offensive. African Americans under Jim Crow suffered real, horrific racial discrimination. The suffering of the so-called 99% cannot compare, and thus cannot justify civil disobedience. Well it’s true that Jim Crow was horrible, and that America has made a lot of progress since the 1960s, thanks to people like MLK. But the poor in this country still suffer greatly. Poor people of colour still suffer worse, fighting against unequal opportunity, an unfair and brutal police system and prison industrial complex, racism and xenophobia, a real lack of safety net, and an unfair financial and economic system that privileges the wealthy. On a global level, the gap between the haves and have-nots is even more terrifying, and the racial divide is even starker. So I think all that is worth blocking a few streets, or yelling outside some buildings peacefully, and striking, and rallying, and demanding justice.
Maybe that’s just me. Or maybe it’s millions of people around America and the world.
Now I’m not a religious person, and MLK was not a saint. Just because he said something doesn’t make it right. But his legacy and his lesson remain valuable. For MLK was also not a Marxist or an anarchist. He was the LEADER of a broad-based social movement. He was able to achieve real change by engaging the political process, and democratically uniting people with disparate views. This is important because individuals matter in history.
The radical activists and anarchists have done the world an incredible service by getting this movement started. But their views are often undemocratic and represent a fraction of a fraction of the 99% (remember half the country votes Republican, and the other half Democrat). We should keep protesting. But we should also engage the political process, both through the Democratic party, and external channels like the idealistic but pragmatic 99% Declaration plan to hold a National General Assembly on July 4, 2012, in Philadelphia. It’s time to find leaders, make a plan, and keep moving forward, to make sure Romney doesn’t win and that Obama doesn’t kowtow to Wall Street and the 1%.
Some cynics might also think I’m over-exaggerating the importance of OWS. “Hasn’t the movement already fizzled?” Well, no. People left and right are talking about inequality, in and outside of politics. More importantly, let’s try to have some historical perspective here. When people think about the American Civil Rights movement, sometimes they think it started in 1960s. Maybe the late 1950s. Maybe Brown v. Board in the 1954. Actually, historians like to refer to the “long Civil Rights movement.” Some people date this to the end of WW2. Or Asa Philip Randolph‘s attempt to lead a March on Washington in 1944. Or to the activism of the 1930s and 1940s, often led by socialists and social democrats and communists, linking race and class. Or Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Or the end of Reconstruction in 1876. Or the end of the Civil War in 1865. With the state of America’s hospitals, schools, and prisons, some people still don’t think it’s over.
I’m not going to rehearse those academic debates. But I am going to reiterate MLK’s oft-invoked quote: “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” This is a long, slow process. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in November 2012, even if Obama is re-elected. It will take time. But we’ll get there. Let’s not let MLK’s dream die.
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