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King Versus the Tea Party: From the Poor People's Campaign to Occupy | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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King Versus the Tea Party: From the Poor People's Campaign to Occupy

Tea Party Congressman Allen West did not approve of President Obama’s suggestion, made at the dedication of the Washington memorial honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that Dr. King would have sympathized with the “Occupy Wall Street” protests of this moment.

“If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there,” the president told the crowd at the dedication of the memorial. “Those with power and privilege will often decry any call for change as divisive. They’ll say any challenge to the existing arrangements are unwise and destabilizing. Dr. King understood that peace without justice was no peace at all.”

Those words drew strenuous objections from Florida Congressman West, who like a lot of conservative Republicans has been arguing of late that right-wing movements such as the Tea Party are virtuous and patriotic, while objecting to any positive portrayals of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests or the “99 Percent” phenomenon that has swept the country in recent weeks.

Asked about “Occupy Wall Street,” Congressman West declared this week: “Martin Luther King Jr. would not have backed these types of protesters.”

Dr. King’s history, and his own words, say otherwise.

Dr. King, always a believer in nonviolent civil disobedience, spent his last months organizing the national Poor People’s Campaign, which sought to bring low-income Americans from all racial and ethnic backgrounds to Washington to focus on poverty; dramatize the pressing need for jobs, income, healthcare and housing; and raise fundamental questions about the gap between rich and poor in America.

“America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important for us as a nation and a society to choose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage.… In this age of technological wizardry and political immorality, the poor are demanding that the basic needs of people be met as the first priority of our domestic program,” Dr. King declared, in launching the campaign that sought to proposed to bring the poor to Washington, march to the offices of federal agencies and camp out until action was taken to address economic inequality and injustice.

That sounds an awfully lot like Occupy Wall Street.

But, of course, West objects: “First of all, Martin Luther King, Jr. had a focus, a message. He was divinely inspired. I don’t know what the inspiration is for these individuals.”

Later, in an interview with a conservative publication, the Republican congressman from Florida suggests an inspiration: opposition to capitalism, at least as it is currently practice in America.

Claiming that “unemployment has nothing to do with Wall Street,” West charged that the Occupy movement is really a left-wing assault on the existing economic order. “We’re starting to really see the face of who liberal progressives are,” warned West. “I think there is a danger in the people on Capitol Hill starting to embrace this movement.”

So where did Dr. King stand with regard to the existing economic order? And to left-wing challenges to it?

The Poor People’s Campaign was conceived and organized by leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during gatherings at Frogmore, South Carolina. The Frogmore gatherings were turning points in the transition from civil rights activism to economic justice activism, where colleagues remember Dr. King explaining: “You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry.… Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong…with capitalism.… There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

In the last decade of his life, Dr. King worked closely with the nation’s leading socialists. The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was organized by A. Philip Randolph, one of the most prominent members of the Socialist Party. In an essay titled, “The Bravest Man I Ever Knew,” King hailed Norman Thomas, the six-time Socialist Party presidential candidate, with a recollection of how, “during our historic March on Washington in the summer of 1963, when 250,000 Negro and white Americans joined together in an outpouring of fellowship and brotherly cooperation for a world of freedom and equality, a little Negro boy listened at the Washington Monument to an eloquent orator. Turning to his father, he asked: ‘Who is that man?’ Came the inevitable answer: ‘That’s Norman Thomas; he was with us before any other white folks were.’ ”

In the period after the March on Washington, Dr. King, Randolph and Thomas worked together to promote the groundbreaking “Freedom Budget,” which proposed:

 1. the abolition of poverty
 2. guaranteed full employment
 3. full production and high economic growth
 4. adequate minimum wages
 5. farm income parity
 6. guaranteed incomes for all unable to work
 7. a decent home for every American family
 8. modern health services for all
 9. full educational opportunity for all.
10. updated (and expanded) Social Security and welfare programs.
11. equitable tax and money policies

It was the fight for the Freedom Budget, which began with White House meetings but eventually moved to the streets, that led Dr. King to propose an intervention in the status-quo politics of the late 1960s: the Poor People’s Campaign.

In arguing for the the long march to Washington and ongoing protests by the poor and working people, King declared: “Timid supplication for justice will not solve the problem. We have got to confront the power structure massively.”

Despite Congressman West’s attempt to suggest otherwise, that sounds an awfully lot like the language of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the “99 Percent” campaign it has generated.

(John Nichols is the author of The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism (Verso), which includes a lengthy examination of the relationship between A. Philip Randolph and Dr. King, and the fight for the Freedom Budget.)

 

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