What Four Essays Published by The Nation Magazine Can Teach Those Seeking Change in America
Americans typically regard Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights leader who had a “dream.” In the most basic terms, Martin Luther King Jr. believed in a “dream” that Americans could, through a large social movement for equality led by Negroes, rise up and live out the true meaning of a creed etched into the fabric of America: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” Yet, the “dream” did not end after August 28, 1963, when King delivered his most famous speech.
King had a vision of economic security for all Americans, not just cultural equality. He did not just want to shift the consciousness of white Americans enough so that brutal and unjust repression of Negroes would come to an end. He wanted all people to be protected from discrimination that might thwart long-term employment, to have food, clothing, education and stability essential for raising a family. He wanted jobs for all people that were not “substandard or evanescent.” He urged massive nonviolent action in the years following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been won.
Today, however, Americans are under-educated or simply unaware of the full history of King. A surface understanding of King exists, an understanding non-threatening to ruling elites in Washington. That is why on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2009 a CNN poll found 69 percent of blacks thought King’s vision had been fulfilled in the forty-five years since his “I Have a Dream Speech.” That result, up from 34 percent in a similar poll taken in March 2008, reflected the widespread belief that the presidential election of Barack Obama “fulfilled” King’s “dream.”
Surface understandings of King are also why generals with the Pentagon are able to stand before the American people and propagandize King’s history as a civil rights leader by lauding King and simultaneously whitewashing his opposition to American militarism, which he spoke out against during the Vietnam War, and claim King would have supported wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is why right wing pundits like Glenn Beck are able to hold “Restoring Honor” rallies to manipulate disturbed and frustrated Americans into believing they can learn something from King about how he believed in “states” rights,” no taxation without representation and other talking points that have helped plant the seeds of proto-fascist movements in our nation’s history.
During the civil rights era in the 1960s, The Nation magazine had King publish annual reports on the struggle to win civil rights and equality for Negroes. It is in these essays that we gain a true glimpse into the political heart and mind of King. Within these essays is a distinct political philosophy. It is a philosophy if applied to today would ensure that the election of Barack Obama was not simply a symbolic election that signified a majority of the white power structure could now accept having an African-American in the White House.
In 1963, King wrote “A Bold Design for a New South.” This essay called upon President John F. Kennedy to understand that the South was split, “fissured into two parts.” One was ready for “extensive change,” the other “adamantly opposed to any but the most trivial alterations.” King pressed the Administration to “place its weight behind the dynamic South, encouraging and facilitating its progressive development.” He believed this was the “moment for government to drive a wedge into the splitting South” and spread it open so that civil rights could be won in the South.
What stands out in this essay is King’s talk of “tokenism.”
The decline of civil rights as the Number One domestic issue was a direct consequence, I believe, of the rise and public acceptance of “tokenism.” The American people have, not abandoned the quest for equal rights; rather, they have been persuaded to accept token victories as indicative of genuine and satisfactory progress”
” This is inevitable when sharply limited goals are set as objectives in place of substantial accomplishments. While merely 7 per cent of Negro children in the South attend integrated schools, the major battle of the year was over one Negro in a Mississippi university. Two thousand school districts remain segregated after nearly a decade of litigation based upon Supreme Court decisions”
” If tokenism were our goal, this Administration has adroitly moved us towards its accomplishment. But tokenism can now be seen not only as a useless goal, but as a genuine menace. It is a palliative which relieves emotional distress, but leaves the disease and its ravages unaffected. It tends to demobilize and relax the militant spirit which alone drives us forward to real change.
King understood that “tokenism” could not bring economic security or the full emancipation of Negroes. King understood that small victories won through legislation or the enactment of laws could not be regarded as the end of struggle. For example, one might presume, if health reform had been a battle King was alive to help people wage today, he would not have let up after health reform was passed. He would still be taking nonviolent action to ensure that the industry did not gut the regulations that had progressives had manage to eke out of the legislative process.
Also, King would have been for expanding Medicare to cover all Americans. If achieved, his dream of economic security for all Americans, especially Negroes, would have been one step closer to achievement. He would not have fought for a “token” public option victory or the small consumer protections that the private insurance industry will likely manipulate to increase profits in the long term. That’s because, as evidenced here, King understand the problem with setting limited goals was that your movement for change could fall short of correcting the injustice, which had pushed you to take action.
What King ultimately concludes is instructive:
Tokenism was the inevitable outgrowth of the Administration’s design for dealing with discrimination. The Administration sought to demonstrate to Negroes that it has concern for them, while at the same time it has striven to avoid inflaming the opposition. The most cynical view holds that it wants the vote of both and is paralyzed by the conflicting needs of each. I am not ready to make a judgment condemning the motives of the Administration as hypocritical. I believe that it, sincerely wishes to achieve change, but that it has misunderstood the forces at play. Its motives may better be judged when and if it fails to correct mistakes as they are revealed by experience.
The day for assessing that experience is at hand. Token gains may well halt our progress, rather than further it. The time has come when the government must commit its immense resources squarely on the side of the quest for freedom. This is not a struggle in which government is a mere mediator. Its laws are being violated.
In sections like the previous one, it is evident that U.S. politics remains very similar to the politics King had to confront to win civil rights victories. King recognized that violations of the law and failure to correct perceived mistakes could tell Americans more than judging how a presidential administration handled forces aligned against change. In the aftermath of the struggle for health reform legislation, King’s rubric for judgment should compel progressives to ask what the Administration intends to do to enforce laws and regulate insurance. It also should ask if it has learned from its failure to communicate an agenda for health reform, because that is what gave great power to Tea Party forces that branded the legislation “Obamacare,” that is what gave insurance companies great power to convince Americans Obama wanted to pass “a government takeover of healthcare,” even though Americans were going to be forced to buy a defective product from private insurance companies under penalty of law because of the individual mandate.
Progressives very much allowed forces of the status quo to stunt the level of change pushed through Congress. A conglomeration of people organizing under the Tea Party moniker created a political culture from the “bottom” up (even if it had secret financers like Dick Armey or the Koch Brothers or Karl Rove raising money to help it take action). Media accepted this as something that would severely limit the agenda of President Obama and progressives lowered their expectations. Unlike King, who did not allow the Ku Klux Klan or those outright sympathetic to force compromise, progressives gave up and accepted a limited goal.
In “Hammer of Civil Rights,” written in 1964, there is further indication that the Senate posed a threat to progressive legislation like it still does today. In the essay, he wrote of the filibuster, “As had been foreseen, the bill survived intact in the House. It has now moved to the Senate, where a legislative confrontation reminiscent of Birmingham impends. Bull Connor became a weight too heavy for the conscience of Birmingham to bear. There are men in the Senate who now plan to perpetuate the injustices Bull Connor so ignobly defended. His weapons were the high-pressure hose, the club and the snarling dog; theirs is the filibuster. If America is as revolted by them as it was by Bull Connor, we shall emerge with a victory.”
The filibuster has consistently popped up as an enemy to a progressive agenda in America. If progressives can learn one thing from King’s attitude toward the filibuster, it is that progressives should frame moves to filibuster (or place “secret holds” on legislation) as part of an agenda of injustice. The filibuster should be framed as a weapon that can bring suffering. In the same way an insurance company can deny coverage, a predatory lender can manipulate interest rates, a bank can throw families out of their homes with no proof to support foreclosure, the filibuster can bring pain and anguish.
King contended, “It is not too much to ask 101 years after the Emancipation, that Senators who must meet the challenge of filibuster do so in the spirit of heroes of Birmingham. They must avoid temptation to compromise the bill as a means of ending the filibuster. They can use the Birmingham method by keeping the Senate in continuous session, by matching the ability of the segregationists to talk with their capacity to outlast them. Nonviolent action to resist can be practiced in the Senate as well as in the streets.”
He hoped that those in favor of radical change would wear down “Southern obstructionists” and force them to a point where they were morally and physically exhausted. He then supposed that cloture could be employed to end the “misery” they were experiencing. He believed that the movement needed to wait out obstructionism, not bend to it. He did not suggest that people take cues from President Kennedy and adjust their goals or objectives when faced with opposition in the Senate. On the contrary, he welcomed opposition as an opportunity to exhaust defenders of the status quo.
Returning to his essay, “A Bold Design for a New South,” King wrote:
A legislative struggle this year need not be a quixotic exercise in futility. The obstructive coalition of Southern Democrats and Conservative Republicans can be split on this issue. The Republicans cannot afford to block civil rights legislation which the President earnestly sponsors, and Southern Democrats cannot defeat it if they are isolated; if, however, the President is lethargic, the Republicans can be tranquil. They can content themselves merely with criticizing the President in absence of real challenge. If civil rights is elevated to the urgency that trade, tax and military legislation enjoys, 1963 can be a year of achievement and not another annual experience with frustration.
These are practical political considerations all dictating one road. Yet above it all, a greater imperative demands fulfillment. Throughout our history, the moral decision has always been the correct decision. From our determination to be free in 1776, to our shedding of the evil of chattel slavery in 1863, to our decision to stand against the wave of fascism in the 1930s, we grew and became stronger in our commitment to the democratic tradition. The correct decision in 1963 will make it a genuine turning point in human rights. One hundred years ago a President, tortured by doubts, finally ended slavery and a new American society took shape. Lincoln had hoped the slavery issue could be relegated to secondary place, but life thrust it into the center of history. There segregation, the evil heritage of slavery, remains.
The lethargic manner with which Obama has gone about advancing seemingly progressive legislation has had an air of quixotic futility to it. He did not try to isolate Blue Dog Democrats in his party opposed to health reform. He let Republicans “content themselves merely with criticizing the President in absence of real challenge” and never truly explain why all Americans should not have access to health care.
Admittedly, with the exception of health reform (although that is debatable), President Obama has failed to articulate the moral imperative for advancing any legislation that might correct significant problems in this country. This inability to be transformative seems to have rubbed off on progressives, as they wonder what they can possibly do, if anything, now that the GOP controls the House (and now that Obama has bought into, like many Democratic governors, this idea that a war on the public sector needs to be waged to address deficits in America).
Issues of urgency have been the tax cut deal in the lame-duck session. Issues that should have been of urgency by now include ending the wars, closing Guantanamo, investigating and prosecuting Bush Administration officials for torture and other war crimes, passing a living wage and other reforms to strengthen labor, and taking on a new agenda to reverse a re-organization of society to favor corporations at the expense of the people, which was energized by the Citizens United v. FEC decision a year ago. And, on health and financial reform, “token” victories should have become flashpoints for progressives to double their efforts and continue to build political momentum in favor of more change, perhaps, by using an end to wars to fund human needs as a notion to compel Americans to support wins for economic security.
In Part 2, Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy on “consensus presidents” and King’s trust in demonstrations and nonviolent action from