by Rev. Brian K. Woodson
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is time to imagine a new dream. The 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was held on August 28, 2013. All over the nation, many small and not-so-small events were held to commemorate the anniversary, including a memorial march in Washington, D.C., and a commemorative celebration in Oakland’s Mosswood Park (in which I played a small part).
The massive march held in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, is most remembered for the speech that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Although I was only six years old at the time, I can still remember watching that speech in the living room on our one and only black-and-white television set. I remember many anniversaries of that day in later years, often celebrated in church services where a youngster would stand and recite that speech word for word.
“I still have a dream…” they would begin reciting. “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
That keynote speech and the martyred man that gave it has become the sealed envelope of the entire march and movement for Civil Rights in America. And now, with the son of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas in the White House, the question can be asked: Has the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about come true?
Certainly, few people would bristle to see or hear the son of a former enslaved person marrying the daughter of a former slaver. We are assured that in these days of equal opportunity, each of us is assessed by the content of our character and certainly not the color of our skin, or the accent of our voice, for that matter.
But the memory of that day 50 years ago may misrepresent the movement upon which it came into being — and misunderstanding the social, political and moral realities of America in the mid-20th century will not only distort one’s view of it, it will mar our ability to remedy the present.
Fifty years ago, America was a tinderbox awaiting the spark. The American ethos that had enslaved millions and created myths of race to support it had morphed into a Jim and Jane Crow reality. The U.S. Constitution declared an equality of all citizens, while the laws and lived experiences were completely different. White nationalism (the notion that America really exists for whites) in its various forms was the lived reality from Northern Maine to Southern California.
Byron Williams, author and columnist, has just published a must-read book, 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility, where he argues that 1963 may have been one of the most pivotal years in American history. I think he is right.
The year of assassinations
On May 28, 1963, Medgar Evers, who worked with the NAACP to end racial segregation and white violence against the blacks of Mississippi, had his house firebombed while he slept with his wife and family. Two weeks later, on June 12, 1963, Evers was murdered in his own driveway, shot to death by a member of the White Citizens’ Council, Byron de la Beckwith.
It was in 1963 that Dr. King, imprisoned on April 12 for a nonviolent march against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote the now famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
In 1963, Governor George Wallace stood in the door of the Foster Auditorium of the University of Alabama to prevent Vivian Malone and James Hood, two African Americans, from enrolling. President Kennedy had to send in the National Guard to insure that they would be enrolled. Gov. Wallace’s infamous words were: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
Those same words were repeated from Wallace’s inaugural speech in which he more fully exposed his perspective: “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
The “greatest people” Gov. Wallace was referring to were the Southern Whites represented by the likes of Jefferson Davis, the provisional president of the Confederate States of America.
Less than one month after the historic march on Washington, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, four young girls getting ready for choir rehearsal, were killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed on Sept. 15, 1963.
This was a time when the efforts of African Americans to claim and acquire the basic human rights afforded others were met with violence and disdain from the core culture of America. Yet, the March on Washington was not a march for African-American equality alone, or even primarily. It was not a march so that a core culture person could freely associate with and perhaps even marry an African American.
It was a march that rose upon a million prayers and practices of people who sought economic, social and political justice. The mainstream media and even President Kennedy did all they could to thwart the march. Even on the day of the march, Kennedy had troops stationed, hospitals on standby and plans made to quell the violence many were sure would occur should the march proceed.
This is in large part because the March on Washington was held to declare that there was something fundamentally wrong with, and in, America. The march was not just for African Americans and it did not just feature African Americans. It was a march that rose on the crest of a wave of change sweeping across America.
We have been taught to remember the Rev. Martin Luther King’s speech and his dream in a false frame. Dr. King’s life goal was not that his daughters be able to marry interracially if they so chose, but that the world they lived in would be a more just and equitable one.
Dr. King’s speech, though eloquent and the concluding address, was not the only important address heard by the 250,000 people on the mall and the millions more at home watching. Much of what was said on that day is conveniently forgotten or deliberately not celebrated.
Architects of the March: Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph
Important addresses were also delivered that day by the two key organizers of the historic march: A. Philip Randolph, who had given birth to the idea of a mass march on Washington, and Bayard Rustin, the major architect of the march.
A. Philip Randolph was a leader in the civil rights struggle, and a pioneering labor union organizer who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and vice-president of the AFL-CIO. He spoke first at the March on Washington, calling for economic justice and full employment for the millions living in poverty.
Randolph said, “We know that we have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty. Nor is the goal of our civil rights revolution merely the passage of civil rights legislation. Yes, we want all public accommodations open to all citizens, but those accommodations will mean little to those who cannot afford to use them. Yes, we want a fair employment practice act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white?”
Bayard Rustin was the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, and a key strategist of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who had studied Gandhi’s nonviolent campaigns in India. At the march, he urgently called for immediate action to end discrimination.
Rustin said, “We demand that segregation be ended in every school district in the year 1963! We demand that we have effective civil rights legislation — no compromise, no filibuster — and that include public accommodations, decent housing, integrated education, FEPC and the right to vote. What do you say? We demand the withholding of federal funds from all programs in which discrimination exists. What do you say?” [FEPC was the Fair Employment Practices Committee created by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802, which stated, “There shall be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color, or national origin.”]
John Lewis and SNCC
The youngest speaker that day was John Lewis from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Several members of SNCC, including Lewis, wrote his speech:
“We march today for jobs and freedom, but we have nothing to be proud of, for hundreds and thousands of our brothers are not here, for they are receiving starvation wages or no wages at all. While we stand here, there are sharecroppers in the Delta of Mississippi who are out in the fields working for less than three dollars per day, 12 hours a day. While we stand here, there are students in jail on trumped-up charges. Our brother James Farmer, along with many others, is also in jail.
“We come here today with a great sense of misgiving. It is true that we support the administration’s Civil Rights Bill. We support it with great reservation, however. Unless title three is put in this bill, there’s nothing to protect the young children and old women who must face police dogs and fire hoses in the South while they engage in peaceful demonstration.”
Many others spoke that day as well: James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Rabbi Uri Miller and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, to name a few. We owe it to them and ourselves to remember what that day really was and the context in which it was born if we are to learn from its lessons or continue its work.
Here in 2013, the American avatar, President Barack H. Obama, embodies the mythological meaning of the March on Washington. President Obama is argued as the embodiment of Dr. King’s dream, but he is not. The movement upon which the moment of that march is elevated in history was about much more than cosmetic changes.
Perhaps it is time, as the march is remembered on this 50th anniversary, for another speech — not a speech about the 20th century, but about the 21st. It is time for a speech not about yesterday, but about today and tomorrow.
In these moments that we remember the March on Washington and those who sacrificed their lives to change our America for the better, the memory of those brave men and women call to us to muster the courage necessary to continue the struggle for jobs and freedom. Their memory calls us to correct the course of reckless and ruinous excesses of the U.S. government and her corporate bosses.
We, like them, realize that the American Empire has swallowed the Republic those flawed founding fathers attempted to create and we must join their ardent struggle for a democracy. There is a deep moral basis for the nation we seek. But when justice does not roll down like water, it must well up like mountains from the hearts and hard work of those who will have nothing else.
A new dream for new times
So, it is time to propose a new speech, a speech not about yesterday, but about today. Let us imagine a speech about our context given, not by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for his was too eloquent a voice and presence. Rather, let us imagine being the speechwriter for one of the rabbis or some preacher of no particular fame.
And let us imagine ourselves preparing, not for a million-person march to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, let us imagine a speech published in a non-mainstream newspaper.
Let us imagine a missive written in an underground newspaper dedicated to the same notions of justice, jobs, freedom and housing that the movement 50 years ago had. Perhaps the Rabbi would write something like this:
I want to begin by saying that we live in perilous times. I will mention in a moment some present perils, but aren’t all times perilous for the poor and oppressed?
History records natural disasters, famines, plagues, and volcanic eruptions, as well as the more insidious corruptions from human hands — the ravages of war, the genocidal adventures and the gold-lust greed that drives them both. History declares that the saga of human society is replete with travesty.
Still, we are here to remember that the gloom of oppressive darkness has been dispelled again and again by those who would shine a light against it: Moses, Miriam and their band of formerly unorganized brickmakers; Mary and Joseph who raised that trouble-making, paradigm-shifting Jesus; Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and all those whose ferocity struck the pillars of America until slavery lost its respectability and had to slip behind bars and concrete walls. May I mention the Lakota Chief, Crazy Horse, who deeply understood the difference between what God had given and what white nationalists had taken away?
I could go on and list the past contests between darkness and the beacons of light that dispelled it, but it would be an error to compare the battles of history with the conflicts of today. Every age has its own particular clarion call. So, without diminishing the perils of the past or exaggerating the peril of the present, I want to say that the work that is extant for our lives is sobering. The work that is before us is dark and daunting and we will need the collective light of our allegiances and we must forge strategic alliances to dispel the dark forces arrayed against us.
There are many troubles that afflict us today. If we were to begin with the long view, we would hear Mother Earth herself groan beneath the weight of our licentiousness. Peak oil is past and yet our addiction has us digging in tar sands like a junkie sucking at the residue of a crack pipe. The ecological turmoil of climate change is the unspoken cause for new wars and exported tyranny. We are at war with the earth. Instead of marriage, we would put the earth on the street and pimp her to our own degradation and demise.
Desperate for a high, American capitalism furrows into her soil, decapitates her mountains, pollutes her rivers and streams, and soils the air we are meant to breathe. The exploitation of the earth was never right and has always been unjust. Instead of the human race existing in harmony with the earth, humanity has become the yeast infection of the planet, exchanging the earth’s sugars for carbon dioxide and alcohol. We are at war with the earth and I am here to tell you, my dear reader, that the earth will win.
And let us consider this great nation in which we exist. Let us consider the ubiquitous surveillance, which principally arrives to further our economic exploitation, but quickly becomes a tool for those drunk with power to further exploit and control “We the people.” The terror, it seems, is not so much the snooping capabilities of our government as it is the near total lack of any expectation of privacy.
We have a generation of people who have given away their right to privacy as well as yours and mine for the convenience of desktop consumption. We have a generation and a half of citizen consumers who do not understand that the dollar store has come to suck the very last pennies from their community.
We have citizens who are anesthetized and inured to the squeeze of impoverishment even as they disparage the necessity of workers organizing for fair and just wages. The OurWalmart workers, the fast food workers, those working in the recycling centers around the Bay Area who are beginning to strike and call for just treatment and living wages, are on the front lines of a movement for all of us.
Let me mention what Edward Snowden has proven and many of us suspected all along. The America we live in is committed to the unconstitutional and illegal recording and keeping of every electronic communication we produce.
A world gone wrong
America is invested in the extrajudicial, immoral and randomized, murderous drone killings anywhere the president chooses. We have kill lists and military tribunals. We have created and maintain the netherworld Guantanamo gulag, and torture the imprisoned at will. We incarcerate more of our citizens than any nation on the planet and allow the investor class to gorge themselves on a privately owned and operated prison-industrial complex.
All this under an administration the left is said to have won. I’m not sure if the left won, but I am positive the right didn’t lose.
The Obama administration is nice, intelligent and affable, but from its rabid attacks on whistleblowers to its zealous deportation of now over a million men, women and children, the actions of this administration should forever remove it from the Pollyanna-ish notion that it has any left-of-center leanings.
Professor Obama continues to teach us the lessons of his predecessor and has added some new ones besides. Under Obama, Lynn Stewart languishes in prison, perhaps condemned to an administrative execution as her breast cancer metastasizes to teach us that lawyers owe their allegiance to the state and not to any notion of law.
Julian Assange, safe for the moment in the Ecuadorian embassy, and Edward Snowden rightly fear for their freedom, lives and safety, and are persecuted to teach us that journalist have only the right to publish the authorized lies of the state.
Widespread unemployment and underemployment amidst rusting bridges and unpaved roads are there to teach us to beg for our wages and be content with whatever crumbs fall from the table to us.
Quantitative Easing is destroying the value of our money and has created hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out “banksters” who have already drowned in their greed and our pensions. They have already eaten our homes and savings accounts. This U.S. brand of austerity exists to teach us how to be slaves again.
We can no longer blame Bush or Cheney. We can no longer blame just the Republicans, but we must add to the list of infamy President Obama and the Democratic Party he leads. America should be better than this.
But let us not just speak in national terms. The City of Oakland, after ten years of watchful oversight of the police department, still has not yielded any significant positive results. We change police chiefs like Imelda Marcos changed shoes. Budgets passed at one City Council meeting disappear in the next. Jobs promised in the first year of a project disappear before the second year commences.
The Port of Oakland, like Piedmont, exists as an island of prosperity in the slough of despond and despair, unaccountable and unrelated to the citizens to whom it belongs. Our children are unsafe even in our homes. The Oakland Unified School District, once the premier and envy of the nation, now languishes as an embarrassment to the notion of education.
Rising tide of poverty
There is much work to be done in our city. Yet there is not enough political will and nascent unfocused people power to effectively put worker and work together in a manner that reads “living wage job.”
There’s plenty of work to be done in Oakland and there is plenty of work that needs to be done all over America — and there are plenty of hard-working people willing and able to perform the tasks that desperately need to be done. There is just no pay offered in exchange for the labor.
There are trends in America that seem disposed to allow most of us to slide back into slavery. What else are we to call the uncompensated labor we are all asked to embrace? City employees are asked to take furlough days, hourly workers are asked to clock out but continue to work, truck drivers are called independent in order to export the cost of delivering goods and exploit their time and labor. The list could go on and the travesty is real.
Poverty is on the rise in America, but we are not poor because we are lazy. Our work as well as our lives are disrespected, not because of who we are or because we are devoted to unprofitable vocations. We are caught in a spiral of declining wages and increasing poverty as a result of deliberate decisions made by men (they are mostly men) who would impoverish a generation if it would enrich them and their benefactors.
America’s trade policies, financial regulations and laws lead to the impoverishment of many of its citizens. Any politician with intelligence or insight knows this. Still, lawmakers are not solely responsible for the unraveled U.S. economy. The very political system of our nation from its inception harbored ill will for the un-propertied poor, women and all but those with the power to become “white men.”
America has yet to fully franchise her citizens. In the past, it offered scattered opportunities for those willing to sacrifice family, community and, for some, identity to ascend on a rising wave of wealth. But the private accumulation always came at a cost that left more ruin or waste in its wake than gain. Now that we languish in the waste and debris of America’s war on the poor, what shall we do?
Fifty years ago, there were vibrant and active organizations fighting to remedy the American misdeeds. There was the NAACP, SNCC, Congress for Racial Equality, The National Urban League, The American Jewish Congress, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the AFL-CIO, among many others, including many major denominations. Today many of these organizations remain active and are still fighting for jobs and freedom.
Now, they are augmented by an alphabet soup of organizations across the nation. Here in the Bay Area, we have the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy (FAME), Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), and the Ella Baker Center. Spreading across the nation, there are organizations such as Green for All, Interfaith Worker Justice movement, Jobs With Justice, Critical Resistance and many more.
What we need in America, even more than another organization, is a new imagination. “We the people” need to have a fresh imagination that leads to positively invigorated conversations about what it means to be human and what it means to be an American. And we must begin that conversation understanding that what it means to be a human being must always trump what it means to be an American.
The Four Freedoms
Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his presidential address to the U. S. Congress on January 6, 1941, sought to fashion this America and the world on four freedoms. The first is the freedom of speech and expression. The second is the freedom to worship God in one’s own way (if one chooses). The third is the freedom from want. Finally, his fourth was the freedom from fear. The moment we live in is desperate for these freedoms.
Well, that would be my speech. For the next few years there will be more opportunities to commemorate the 50th anniversary of various milestones of the Civil Rights movement. When those moments arrive, let us not use them solely to remember what others have done.
Rather, let us use each remembered milestone to empower, embolden and revitalize the work we are engaging in every day to bring jobs, freedom and justice. And like the bold activists of the past, let us use the power of nonviolence to create an America without the villainy of war, the desperation of poverty, or the need for avatars.
Rev. Brian K. Woodson is an Oakland pastor and an activist for social justice.