On April 4th, 1968, the day when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot down in Memphis Tennessee, the American left lost its way. Less than a year before he was murdered, King set out to channel the energy and power of the Civil Rights movement toward ending poverty among all the races in the world’s richest country. This metamorphosis of the civil rights struggle was called the “Poor People’s Campaign”.
Income and housing were the main goals of the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign would help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to start to a solution. Under the “economic bill of rights,” the Poor People’s Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing. The Poor People’s Campaign was part of the second phase of the civil rights movement. Wikipedia
It is difficult not to believe that his murder was a direct result of this change of course. Certainly no movement has arisen since to replace or replicate the Poor People’s Campaign. And it certainly is not for any lack of poor people:
Another 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the United States last year, the Census Bureau reported Tuesday, and the number of Americans living below the official poverty line, 46.2 million people, was the highest number in the 52 years the bureau has been publishing figures on it. New York Times -09/15/2011
What Dr. King was initiating was an evangelical “Liberation Theology” and if allowed to continue it could have electrified the United States. If begun again it could electrify it today.
America’s first Nobel prize for literature, Sinclair Lewis once said that, “when fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross”. I would go a bit farther and say that any rebellion in the USA would have those characteristics to begin with.
To paraphrase the demon Rumsfeld, you have to go with the working class you have and not the one you might like to have.
Many progressives have problems with all of this, they are repelled by what they consider the gross superstition of creationism, for example. As to evolution, however, if progressives ever hope to win over working class white people and black people, they had better not put evolution at the center of their program. Poor people never have liked Darwinism very much… think about it. What does “survival of the fittest” hold for them? What is their role in “the devil take the hindmost”?
Why are so many of the poor of America, white and black, socially conservative?
Because without a welfare state, the only institutions that offer any comfort or protection are the church and the family. The family is the first welfare state. In the USA there is no welfare state and the family is also under heavy pressure from the system. Single parent families are increasingly common, The United States has the highest percentage of single-parent families (34% in 1998) among developed countries. The United States has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, twice that of Denmark, Canada, or the United Kingdom. The divorce rate is highest among lower income couples. With reason, poor people in America are terrified: frightened people take comfort where they can. A divorced waitress with two kids who has to take them to an emergency room to treat their asthma can’t be criticized for being a “Left Behind” enthusiast: she and her kids fly up to heaven and the stingy tippers go to hell.
She and her children will be saved, taken directly up to heaven and all the people who have ever treated them so shabbily here on earth will suffer indescribable torment and humiliation, which the chosen will be able to watch from heaven. This is a form of sedition… it goes against everything that the Tea Party, the Cato Institute and the Club for Growth stand for.
Imagine how the following text would sit with Ayn Rand or the Koch Brothers, in fact, can you imagine it being spoken at a Tea Party event?
‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least among you, you did not do for me.’ Matthew 25:41-45
Trying to make the Teabaggers square their program with the Holy Bible might short circuit the whole business. A text like this, and others like them from the world’s great religions, are the earliest expressions of the universal human hatred of oppression and thirst for social justice. As such they help give shape and a common, deeply rooted, electrifying language to express a growing consciousness that things are not as they should be. That is the language with which Dr. King chose to clothe his message and this is how Martin Luther King wished to be remembered:
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Wikipedia
All of this is about building consciousness and directing it into positive and effective channels. That is the political task facing progressives today. I am not totally pessimistic that this is impossible because all the materials are there ready to be taken up and put to use, however the only political figure in America that ever brought all the positive threads of American culture and its ancient roots together in one package was Dr. King and surely that is why they took his life.
Dr. King’s legacy is why I think that some sort of “liberation theology”, which makes full resonant use of the American people’s most powerful cultural baggage, is finally going to be the only idea or movement that is going to truly change America. We have to take up the struggle precisely where Martin Luther King Jr. was on April 4th, 1968.