Sojourner's Blog

October 16, 2013

The March on Washington 50 Years Later

On a sweltering August day in 1963, I listened to Dr. King speak his dream, articulating the highest aspirations of our Freedom Movement. My heart soared, and to this day I am still moved by those words no matter how often I hear them.

But now, 50 years later, as the media tributes and commemorations flood the airwaves I am struck by their thundering silence on the issues of economic justice, poverty, and income-inequality that formed half of the protest’s bedrock core.

The March on Washington was a march for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis of SNCC, and James Farmer of CORE, all insisted that the march must be as much about economic justice as about social segregation. We marched that day to make 10 demands on American government and society (see ). Half of those demands addressed economic issues such as a living minimum wage, jobs and job training, fair labor standards, and an end to employment discrimination. The first portion of Dr. King’s speech — the part which the media and the politicians never quote — spoke to issues of wealth and poverty and income inequality.

Today, as we know full well, those issues are still with us, still unaddressed, still festering. Now, 50 years later, issues of economic justice, income inequality, and systemic poverty still remain the taboo topic of political discourse in America. Fifty years ago we assumed that the roots of poverty lay in discrimination and lack of opportunity. Today we understand that such issues are also inextricably bound to the realities of political power, the enormous disparity of influence between the wealthy few and working many.

Year after year, anti-union laws and court rulings cripple the ability of hard working people to earn a living-wage, while pro-business legislation and government policies encourage and subsidize the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs in a race to the bottom of lower labor costs. Housing and urban renewal policies result in the poor paying greater portions of their income for substandard housing than the affluent do for luxury accommodations. Political dis-investment in education, public works, transportation, and public health steadily widen the income gap and disproportionately impact the poor. Despite rhetoric about “family farms,” federal agriculture policies and subsidies are designed to enrich corporate agribusiness and impoverish small subsistence farmers. Business and consumer “protection” laws and international treaties are written to favor corporate profits at the expense of We the People.

One of the March demands was to raise the federal minimum from $1.15/hour to $2.00. When you adjust for inflation, $1.15 in 1963 is equal to $8.78 in 2013. Yet today, the federal minimum wage is only $7.25, significantly lower than what it was 50 years ago. After adjusting for inflation, the $2.00/hour minimum wage called for by the marchers would be equal to a minimum wage of $15.27 today, more than twice what it actually is. Congress sets the minimum wage. It is corporate political power that keeps it low, and the only way to raise it is by building popular people power.

Dr. King understood this relationship between economic justice and political power. In a lecture shortly before his assassination in 1968 he said, “The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty.”

August, 2013

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October 14, 2013

Taxes and Liberty Poles

When I was a kid they taught me all about the American Revolution, “No Taxation Without Representation,” the Stamp Tax and the Boston Tea Party. Yay! Go Yankees!

But for some reason (an oversight, no doubt), they left out the context. Those taxes our ancestors were protesting were imposed to finance imperialist war. From the 1740s through 1760s, Britain fought the Dutch, French, and Spanish to conquer Canada, seize sugar islands in the Caribbean, take Senegal & Gambia in Africa, and grab Bengal & Pondicherry in India. That required a massive expansion of the British Army & Navy, first to take and then to hold those prizes against rival powers and local resistance.

But the riches and wealth from those colonies went only to the British 1%, the aristocrats and merchant princes who owned the East and West India companies, the plantations, and the mines. And, of course, the slaves, serfs, & indentured servants forced to work them. Since they controlled Parliament, they arranged a tax system where they paid very little and the 99% were bled dry for their benefit.

The resulting tax protests didn’t just occur in America, there were protests, riots, and uprisings in Ireland, Scotland, and England itself. The “Boston Massacre” we read about in school, for example, was called “massacre” in memory of the “St. George’s Fields Massacre” in London two years earlier when 15,000 people protesting taxes and denial of free speech were fired on by Redcoats.

One of the tactics of popular resistance used on both sides of the Atlantic back then was erecting “Liberty Poles” on public and private property as protest symbols and rallying points. Some of those poles were very tall, and all of them were hung with signs and symbols of protest. When the authorities tried to cut them down, sometimes they were defended, occasionally with violence, but more often with what we would today call nonviolent mass action. If a pole was taken down, a mass action was mobilized to put up a new one. The authorities discovered that it was much easier for the protesters to erect new poles than for the Redcoats to take them down against public opposition.

Ah well, just a curiosity of history I suppose. So glad all that sort of injustice and abuse is long in the past.

February 14, 2013

The Roots of Poverty

Fifty years ago, Black and white college students active with the Civil Rights Movement undertook freedom sojourns in rural communities of the deep South. For many of us, our starkest and most enduring memories of that intense time are not of KKK violence, mass protests or filthy jail cells but rather images of devastating, intractable, systemic poverty. In 2005, TV images of Katrina’s aftermath forcefully reminded us once again that beneath America’s celebrated affluence lie rural and urban wastelands of abysmal poverty and human suffering.

The mass media presents us with two opposing views of poverty’s root causes:

To oversimplify, and in a sense caricaturize, the view of the political right is that there are two kinds of poor folk. The “deserving poor” (orphans, accident victims, those with debilitating illness, etc.) for whom we should provide some ameliorative charity. And a much greater number of “undeserving poor” who live in poverty because they are lazy, shiftless, alcoholic, drug addicted, or are sexually promiscuous women who engage in serial pregnancies. Providing assistance to the undeserving poor just enables their life-style choices and encourages them to remain permanent social parasites feeding off the hard work and taxes of “productive” citizens.

Again to oversimplify, the liberal view is that in most cases the root cause of long-term poverty is lack of opportunity. Inadequate education, lack of job training, no child care, inadequate public transportation, no jobs available, or jobs denied because of race, gender, or some other form of discrimination. And therefore the corresponding solution is to supply opportunity by ending discrimination, providing education, training, child care, transportation and investing public and private funds to create new jobs.

I and many other civil rights workers initially held the liberal view. But once involved in the Freedom Movement we quickly learned that while discrimination and lack of opportunity are certainly important factors, lack of political power (broadly defined) is a deeper, and more fundamental root cause of systemic poverty. In this context, “political power” refers to the ability to change (or maintain) some economic aspect of society. This kind of political power can be expressed via elections, lobbying, economic action (boycotts, strikes and mutual aid), and all the varied tactics of nonviolent direct action.

Year after year, anti-union laws and rulings cripple the ability of workers to earn a living wage while pro-business legislation and government policies encourage and subsidize the outsourcing and offshoring of jobs in a race to the bottom of lower and lower labor costs. Housing and urban renewal policies result in the poor paying greater portions of their income for substandard housing than the affluent do for luxury accommodations. Political disinvestment in education, public works, transportation, and public health disproportionately impact the poor to their detriment. Despite rhetoric about “family farms,” federal agriculture policies and subsidies enrich corporate agribusiness and impoverish small and medium farmers. And business and consumer laws are written to favor corporate profits at the expense of those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

The result is that most poor people have productive jobs — often multiple jobs — and they are working longer and longer hours, but they remain mired in permanent poverty. This is not caused by lack of opportunity alone, it’s also caused by lack of power to change the systems, policies, and practices that create and continually recreate poverty.

In essence, the liberal “lack-of-opportunity” view was the intellectual foundation that underlay the federal “War on Poverty” programs of the 1960s. Despite LBJ’s rhetoric, empowering poor people was not included in those programs and when people in the field made efforts in that direction they were immediately reined in by both local and national power brokers.

Such was the case with the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), one of the earliest and most successful Headstart programs. Among its organizers were a number of Freedom Movement veterans who favored training and hiring actual poor people to staff the centers (as opposed to professional educators with college degrees). They organized poor parents to take active decision-making roles in both the education of their children and broader community affairs.

The CDGM came under immediate and intense political attack from the Mississippi power-structure led by Senator Stennis who accused it of being “Communist” — not because the alphabet blocks the children played with could be used to spell “red,” but because it was empowering poor people to exert some influence and control over their own lives. Bowing to political pressure, Washington soon defunded CDGM, replacing it with a program where middle-class professionals provided services to the poor who were expected to consume and accept what was given to them as passive clients.

Dr. King understood this relationship between poverty and political power. In a lecture shortly before his assassination he said:

The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. — The Trumpet of Conscience, Beacon Press.

 That was the underlying vision of his Poor Peoples Campaign, to build a national, multi-racial alliance of poor people to fight on their own behalf. Not to plead for more charity or welfare, but to demand and win economic justice.

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