Originally published 10/18/11 at Tikkun Daily
The developed industrial nations of the world cannot remain secure islands of prosperity in a seething sea of poverty. The storm is rising against the privileged minority of the earth, from which there is no shelter in isolation or armament. The storm will not abate until a just distribution of the fruits of the earth enables man everywhere to live in dignity and human decency. – Dr. King
In another moment of Great American Irony President Obama inaugurated the Dr. King memorial this week in Washington D.C. He not only invoked the legacy of King but he also spoke favorably of the Occupy Wall Street movement and said King would support it. Yes, of course, King would back the cause. However, despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize, Obama hasn’t shown any willingness to address King’s triple evils of “war, economic exploitation and racism.” These also happen to be similar concerns for many in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Obama should, however, be careful about who and what he praises because the Occupy movement is expanding and Dr. King’s final campaign was going to bring the revolution close to home. He said, “We’ve got to camp in – put our tents in front of the White House…America will have many many days, but they will be full of trouble. There will be no rest, there will be no tranquility in this country until the nation comes to terms with our problem.”
On Dr. King’s birthday, Jan. 15th 1968 – which was sadly to be his last – he was organizing with a multi-racial coalition of Native Americans, Chicanos, Appalachian whites and urban black people to start an encampment in Washington D.C. that would be a massive “nonviolent army” which would “cripple the operation of an oppressive society.” By 1968, King’s earlier emphasis on civil rights had evolved into a revolutionary stance against capitalism, the Vietnam War, U.S. Imperialism and poverty. Leading tens of thousands of poor people, activists, clergy and concerned citizens to camp in D.C. was a “kind of last, desperate demand for the nation to respond to nonviolence.” He even suggested to his staff that after a few days they could call in the peace movements and “try and close down the Pentagon.” King meant business. The encampment would have to be “as dramatic, as dislocative, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying life or property.” He talked about clogging the roads, shutting down bridges and making the “city not function anymore.” The country that he loved so much had strayed so far from its ideals that he said, “We’ve got to go for broke this time…they aren’t going to run me out of Washington.”
It’s clear that King’s concerns resonate with Occupy Wall Streets (OWS) protests against corporate greed, unending wars, dangerous foreign policy and a broken political system. He called for a “radical redistribution of economic, social and political power.” King had courageously spoken out against the U.S. for engaging in a war that “seeks to turn the clock of history back and perpetuate white colonialism,” at a time when 70% of the country still supported the war. Involvement in Vietnam and U.S. meddling in Latin America was diverting desperately needed funds for jobs, housing and the combating of poverty. Of course King saw the war in light of a much larger problem, “Something is wrong with capitalism as it now stands in the United States.” He spoke highly of Sweden’s socialistic economy and argued that America should move towards a form of democratic socialism. Frustrated with the governments unwillingness to address poverty in the urban ghettos and angry with whites for failing to see the riots in context of oppression and racism King began condemning the “vicious class systems” in America. On some level King was asking a simple question, “What is a more basic issue than jobs and incomes?” Yet he knew that capitalism, war and racism were all tied together, which made this question a rather difficult one to solve. King, however, wasn’t prepared to wait for an answer:
We must formulate a program and we must fashion the new tactics which do not count on government good will, but instead serve to compel unwilling authorities to yield to he mandates of justice…There must be more than a statement to the larger society, there must be a force that interrupts its functioning at some key point. The interruption must not, however, be clandestine or surreptitious. It must be open and, above all, conducted by large masses without violence. If the jails are filled to thwart it, its meaning will become even clearer.
King called upon the creatively maladjusted to rise up and protest to “save the soul of the nation.” He knew that people were attacked as un-American for protesting against capitalism and unpatriotic for challenging the military-industrial complex but encouraged the masses to speak out. He said, “How few people have the audacity to express publicly their convictions, and how many have allowed themselves to be astronomically intimidated!” When Julian Bond was prevented from taking his seat as a Georgia congressman for supporting a SNCC resolution against the war, King defended him. King also warned, “If Americans permit thought-control, business-control, and freedom-control to continue, we shall surely move within the shadows of fascism.”
What Occupy Wall Street Can Learn from Dr. King
The OWS movement has been appropriately criticized for being predominantly a white, middle class phenomenon which hasn’t recognized that Indigenous peoples were the first to be occupied on this land. The focus should be on decolonization they argue. King would share this concern. He in fact recognized America’s disturbing past,
Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population.
King also came to realize that “vast majority of white Americans are racist, either consciously or unconsciously.” OWS shouldn’t forget that white privilege still factors into everything. People of color in this country have experienced these economically challenging times in a much worse way. For example, a recent study showed that Latinos and Blacks are more than 70% likely to have their home foreclosed on than white people are. There is, however, some progress on these issues in the OWS movement. The Occupy Boston movement ratified a memorandum of solidarity with Indigenous peoples claiming, “Occupy Boston aspires to ‘Decolonize Boston’ with the guidance and participation of First Nations Peoples.” At the Occupy SF rally on Oct. 15th one of the speakers stated that we are on stolen land and connected this to the prison industrial complex, racism and capitalism. In the Occupy NY movement a few people of color were able to successfully convince organizers to change the language to not carelessly represent racial issues in their list of demands. Undoubtedly there is still more work to do.
King had developed several goals in his final campaign, which may or may not inspire the OWS movement. He had hoped the Poor People’s Campaign would achieve direct employment through a massive public works program, a guaranteed annual income, funding for teaching and education and adequate medical care for the poor. King also said, “We need the equivalent of Medicare for housing.” It’s simple: jobs, income, housing, education and the elimination of poverty. Are these still too broad however? Is it too soon for the OWS movement to develop concrete demands? It’s open for debate. But I think the Occupy Wall Street movement can agree with King when he says, “the real issue is the radical reconstruction of American society itself.”
As the Occupy Wall Street movement becomes increasingly global we should remember King’s insistence on creating a “world house.” He was well aware of the damaging role the U.S. was playing across the globe and that it was “a result of a racist culture, and their thinking is colored by that fact…They don’t respect anyone who is not white.” He rightly condemned the U.S. and Britain for failing to intervene against apartheid in South Africa and spoke out against corporate global domination. “We in the west must bear in mind that the poor countries are primarily poor because we have exploited them through political and economic colonialism.” King recommended forming a long-term Marshall Plan that would eliminate global poverty, especially in South America, Africa and Asia. He called for us to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters across the world, “so many of Latin America’s problems have roots in the United States of America that we need to form a solid united movement, nonviolently conceived and carried through…” He envisioned a “worldwide fellowship” that extends beyond “one’s tribe, race, class and nation.”
King’s emphasis was on the poor and homeless – people who were and are already occupying the streets of America. His moving into the poorest and most exploited black ghetto in Chicago was perhaps his first “camp in” of sorts. He spent time listening to the difficult stories of his fellow tenants who he was now living with in slum conditions. And he believed the driving force behind the Poor People’s Campaign would be poor people. King agreed with Walter Chivers, his sociology professor at Morehouse who believed they were the “real revolutionaries,” because they had nothing left to lose. He warned that, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.” Let’s not forget that King’s final message was not primarily for the middle class, although he would certainly sympathize with their massive economic losses. Rather, he was killed while supporting low-wage African American sanitation workers in Memphis and unfortunately wasn’t able to realize his massive action in Washington.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel once said, “The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.” I agree. Now it’s up to us to carry out his legacy and take back our own futures! Occupy Everything! Decolonize! And as King said, “Just camp here and stay!”
The spirit is awake now; structures will follow, if we keep our ears open to the spirit…But we do not have much time. The revolutionary spirit is already world-wide. If the anger of the peoples of the world at the injustice of things is to be channeled into a revolution of love and creativity, we must begin now to work, urgently, with all the peoples, to shape a new world. – Dr. King
Robert James Scofield, "Be," is a San Francisco based activist working to combine spirituality with anti-racism and social justice. Be is the founder of God Bless the Whole World, a free online resource with hundreds of videos of leading visionaries related to social justice and spirituality. He writes for Tikkun magazine and his work has appeared on Alternet.org, IntegralWorld and FactNet.