This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
In the fall of 1979, the Rev. Jesse Jackson invited me to accompany him on a ten-day visit to South Africa, coordinated by the African National Congress. Everywhere we went, from Cape Town to Durban, from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, the Freedom Charter would come up at some point in our conversations. This document, drafted by the ANC, had been discussed and modified by gatherings all around the country before being adopted at a nationwide assembly in Kliptown in 1955. Its vision—of a South Africa with civil, human and economic rights for all—would serve until the end of apartheid to unite the freedom movement in all of its sectors and to inspire hope and confidence in ultimate victory, despite the pain of the struggle and the ruthlessness of the regime.
Two years later, I was privileged to be one of the people whom The Nation invited to take part in a US peace activists’ tour of the NATO countries of Western Europe. We went in response to the Reagan administration’s unilateral initiative to deploy nuclear-armed missiles in Europe, as well as the great concern being expressed in many parts of Europe about this decision. In the Netherlands, one of the groups we visited was the Women’s Peace Committee at the Catholic University of Nijmegen. Near the end of a very cordial and interesting meeting, one of the women commented: “In 1940, the Germans came; they left in 1945. In 1945, the Americans came. When are they leaving?”
These two experiences, among many others, impressed upon me the idea of a Democracy Charter as a uniting vision for the diverse sectors of our social-change movement in the United States. The following version summarizes and updates ten points I first drafted in 2005—the fiftieth anniversary of the ANC’s Freedom Charter—for a conference of US and Canadian social-change activists and academics at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Since then, as I’ve continued to revise the draft, study groups have formed around the country, from South Carolina to the Bay Area, to consider and update the charter as an outline of substantive democracy.
Most of the issues included in the Democracy Charter were chosen because they have been the object of public activity, led by a great variety of organizations, over a number of years. The Democracy Charter, summarized below, seeks to enlarge the public’s understanding of the connectedness of these issues as a way to achieve a social transformation of American society. This is the ultimate purpose of our movement.