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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February 1, 2010

In Memory of Dr. King — A Winter Soldier

[Address to an event honoring Martin Luther King organized by the Gray Panthers in Berkeley, California. January 15, 2005]

Today we are here to commemorate the birthday of Dr. King who was born on Jan 15, 1929. He would have been 77 today.

We should begin by remembering an earlier January — January of 1777 when an ink-stained wretch named Tom Paine huddled by a little fire amid the blood- stained snows of Valley Forge and wrote:

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

We, the men & women here in this room, Black and white, red and brown and yellow — We are the Winter Soldiers of the Unfulfilled American Dream.

Dr. King was a Winter Soldier. He was a Winter Soldier, and he was killed in action on April 4, 1968 while supporting a strike of Memphis garbage workers.

We used to joke that were part of a “Freedom Army.” In that context, Dr. King was the general and I was — at best — just a Sergeant. And as with most armies, generals and Sergeants don’t have much personal contact with each other. I was present at a few meetings he participated in, and I drove him a once or twice when his regular driver was not available.

If Dr. King saw me on the street in Selma, he would recognize that I worked for him and he might ask me to do something, but I doubt he recalled my name. So my view of Dr. King was from the rank and file, not from the inner circle. Yet even from a distance, the striking thing about that view is that Dr. King’s private behavior matched his public persona — though he did have a broad sense of humor that rarely came through in his speeches and sermons.

In both his private and public lives, what struck me most about Dr. King was his profoundly humanist vision that united people of all races and creeds. A vision founded in the unkept promise of America: “That we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.”

What struck me about Dr. King was the depth of his compassion for the suffering of all people, of all races, of all nations. And what struck me about Dr. King was how much he cared for people, not just people in general as an abstract concept, but people as individuals.

What struck me about Dr. King was his humility. He was profoundly uncomfortable with the adulation that he received, but he he used it to move people into action. And he never made money for himself, even the Nobel prize money was put back into the Movement.

Dr. King was often criticized for not being “militant” enough. But what we often forgot, or failed to understand, was that he agonized: over every jailed demonstrator, over every beaten voter, over every martyr’s death. When we were wounded, he bled. Later in life I experienced leaders who casually sent others to the barricades without qualms or doubts, and I realized how lucky I had been to be a Sergeant in Dr. King’s Freedom Army.

It’s not often mentioned, but like all of us, Dr. King made mistakes and had failures. Yet one of the great things about him is that he learned from his mistakes & failures. From the errors he made during the Albany campaign of 1962, came the Birmingham victories of 1963 which played such a key role in eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Out of the defeat in the Chicago struggle to end slums in 1966 came the brilliant concept of the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1968 — an effort to unite people of all races to fight for economic justice. So often we encounter leaders and theoreticians who are so wedded to the correctness of their opinions that they endlessly repeat their failure rather than learn new ideas, new tactics, new strategies. King was not like that. He learned. He grew.

As veterans of the Freedom Movement, one of the issues we are constantly confronting is how the mass media and education system distorts that Movement. The very term “Civil Rights Movement” is a distortion. Most of us dislike that name, prefering instead to use “Freedom Movement” whenever we can. Successful social movements always focus on specific issues as points of attack for much broader goals. The Southern Freedom Movement focused on segregation and voting, but it was much broader than just the limited notion of achieving those two civil rights. The Southern Freedom Movement was really about the overthrow of an entire system of feudal oppression and exploitation that had replaced slavery after the Civil War. Our song and chant was “Freedom Now!” not “civil rights now!”

By defining the Freedom Movement as a “Civil Rights Movement,” the media limits its scope to that of a modest reform within a benevolent broader system. In reality, it was a fundamental attack on the existing political and economic power structure in the South.

Just as the media distorts the Movement as a whole, it distorts Dr. King by freezing him at the moment in time when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. By freezing him at “Black & white together,” and “Judging people by the content of their character rather than color of skin.” Over this holiday, compare in your minds the number of times you see images of King on TV saying those words versus the number of times you see him:

  • Confronting Mayor Daley about urban poverty and racial discrimination in the north.
  • Telling students at Stanford: “It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality. And so today we are struggling for something which says we demand genuine equality.
  • Speaking out against the War in Vietnam, and telling America: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
  • Supporting workers on strike for economic justice.
  • By freezing Dr. King in time, the media conceals one of the profound truths about him which that is that he evolved — that he rapidly evolved.

    I remember when he spoke from the steps of the Alabama state capitol at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March. He said “Though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends towards justice.” As I think back on it now, I’m astounded at how far his personal political arc traveled in just 13 years. On the day before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in 1955, Dr. King was a socially-conservative, politically-moderate, Baptist preacher in Montgomery, Alabama. On the day he was assasinated in Memphis 13 years later he was a Drum Major of social, economic, and international justice who was shaking the powers of the world. And that’s why they killed him.

    Let’s be clear about one thing, I do not know of a single Movement activist who believes the “lone gunman” lie. We all believe that King’s assassination was engineered by the power elites for two reasons:

    First, because he was uniting poor people across race and ethnic lines around issues of economic justice. And that under his leadership the Poor People’s Campaign threatened to directly challenge the culture of greed and exploitation on which the wealthy elite base their power.

    And second, by opposing the War in Vietnam he was challenging a foreign policy driven by global corporate expansion and the ideology of neo-colonialism in guise of anti-communism.

    Malcom X was killed for the same reasons. When he returned from Hajj in 1964, Malcolm renounced separatism, and said he would work with people of all races. And his first effort was organizing a petition to the UN documenting that the treatment of Black Americans violated the UN Charter and Declaration of Human Rights and demanding that the U.S. be charged with human rights violations.

    When Medgar Evers was assassinated, his widow Myrlie said: “You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” And when Dr. King was killed, it was said that, “You can kill the dreamer, but you cannot kill the dream.” And that is true. But it is only true if there are Winter Soldiers with the courage and determination to carry on. So let me close by taking note of something we often forget when recalling history.

    Those Winter Soldiers huddled in the snow at Valley Forge did not know they were eventually going to win. At that time, the Redcoats occupied the major cities and dominated the colonies — only a handful villages and hamlets dared wear Liberty Blue. There was no easy promise of quick success. The summer soldiers gave up and went home. The Winter Soldiers held on. And that is the essential definition of a Winter Soldier, one who is continues fighting for justice even in the coldest winter.

    Dr. King called himself as a “Drum Major for Justice.” He was also a Winter Soldier.

    Copyright © Bruce Hartford, 2005

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