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The Commons
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Voices / Viewpoint

Ours is a people's history of struggle and resistance

Martin Luther King Jr. was one of many people whose actions truly moved our democracy

Tim Kipp is retired from an almost-four-decade-long career teaching history, law, and political science, most recently at Brattleboro Union High School. This piece is adapted from a speech he gave to honor Martin Luther King Jr. at ceremonies held at Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro on Jan. 14.

Originally published in The Commons issue #391 (Wednesday, January 18, 2017). This story appeared on page D1.

In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. stated, “For years I labored with the idea of reforming existing institutions of society [through] a little change here, a little change there. Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to have to have a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.”

By the 1960s, his political analysis was evolving; his conceptions of racial justice would now embrace political democracy and economic democracy.

Questioning capitalism and its partner, imperialism, would become part of King’s critical analysis, along with integration and voting rights. He clearly understood the Marxist axiom: where there is economic power there is political power.

As he emerged from liberalism to embrace a radical analysis, he saw history being made by the people and not by leaders.

In commemoration of the life and meaning of Martin Luther King Jr., we should recognize the true forces of democracy. Ours is a people’s history of struggle and resistance.

* * *

The real American Revolution began not when George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison wrote of breaking the bonds or petitioning the Privy Council. It started when small farmers rose up to challenge authority as Minutemen and as members of the Tea Party revolts.

It began when Crispus Attucks and others confronted British soldiers, when Thomas Paine challenged imperialism and called for resistance, when the Committees of Correspondence formed a shadow government and, later, when Daniel Shays rebelled.

Real democracy did not look to a white congress of the wealthy to end slavery. It wasn’t Abraham Lincoln or Thaddeus Stevens or Charles Sumner who led the fight.

It was the Quaker tax resister John Woolman, it was the slave revolts of Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner, it was Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, and it was the agitation of William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass.

Real democracy was created in union halls, not in the halls of Congress. Workers won when corporations and Congress were forced to recognize unions and enact fair-labor standards such as the minimum wage, shorter hours, and health benefits.

Don’t look to Franklin Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, or leaders of the AFL-CIO. Look to the women and men in the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, and the National Miners Union (and millions of others who struck, battled the Pickertons, and walked countless picket lines).

Look to those who faced John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s private army at Ludlow, Colo.; to those who struck for “Bread and Roses” at Lawrence, Mass.; and to those who sat in at Flint and Detroit, Mich.

Look to Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, who at 90 was called the “most dangerous woman in America.” Look to the civil disobedience of Big Bill Haywood and Joe Hill, or to Clara Lemlich, the teenager who led the wildcat uprising of 20,000 garment workers.

Look to César Chávez and Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers who nonviolently confronted corporate agriculture. And today, look to RoseAnn DeMoro and her union: National Nurses United.

* * *

It wasn’t John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, or Congress that accorded African-Americans their rights.

That fight began with Charles Hamilton Houston and his band of young Howard University Law School graduates, including Thurgood Marshall, who in the 1930s took segregation to court.

It began with A. Philip Randolph’s 1941 plan for a March on Washington and by George Houser and the Congress of Racial Equality’s first Freedom Rides in 1947.

It began when James Lawson and Bayard Rustin taught a young Martin Luther King Jr. about Gandhian nonviolence.

It began when Rosa Parks refused to change seats, when Daisy Bates helped seven students desegregate Little Rock Central High School, when the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Diane Nash and John Lewis led the 1961 sit-in that ignited nearly 100 other such actions across the nation.

It began when Freedom Riders braved the fire bombings by the Ku Klux Klan in Anniston, Ala. and when the FBI’s vicious assassination programs against the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, and Malcolm X exposed our government’s capacity to violate the Constitution.

The struggle will continue until all our citizens can live with equal protection in a just society.

* * *

Real democracy is not voting every two years for the evil of two lessers; instead, it is the creation of authentic alternative political parties.

The 2016 election is the embodiment of how debilitated our democracy is. The mainstream choices were corporate, and many good people voted their fears and not their hopes.

Imagine a real democracy where there are viable choices.

Remember Eugene V. Debs, Victor Berger, and Meyer London of the Socialist Party, which in the early 20th century won more than 1,000 elected offices.

Remember Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party that spearheaded the modern suffrage movement.

Remember the Communists, led by the likes of Gus Hall and Angela Davis, who campaigned for the rights of labor and African-Americans. Today, the traditions continue with the Green Party and the Vermont Progressive Party, which just won the lieutenant governor’s seat — and, of course, with our own Bernie Sanders.

The peace and anti-imperialist movement was not led by Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, and George McGovern. Our leaders were the likes of Ammon Hennacy and Dorothy Day (lifelong war-tax resisters) or Dave McReynolds and Dave Dellinger (who went to prison instead of war) or A.J. Muste, who at age 74 climbed a federal fence to occupy an Atlas missile base.

Our leaders were Dagmar Wilson of Women’s Strike for Peace, and Juanita and Wally Nelson of the Peacemakers, and teachers and activists like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn.

Real democracy does not wait for governments to confer rights on the people. Women did not wait for the 19th Amendment, hiring-discrimination legislation, Roe v. Wade, or equal-pay acts. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Margaret Sanger did not wait.

The women who chained themselves to President Woodrow Wilson’s White House gates or led hunger strikes in prison did not wait.

Emma Goldman, Mabel Vernon, NOW’s Eleanor Smeal, and Betty Friedan did not wait. Feminists such as Robin Morgan did not wait.

Our gay brothers and sisters at the Stonewall uprising refused to wait, and now LGBTQ activists are reaping unprecedented victories as the struggle continues.

Like slaves, Native Americans know all too well the meaning and necessity of resistance to government oppression.

For over 500 years, Native nations have been fighting terrorism, and as the political prisoner Leonard Peltier remains in prison, the struggle for Native rights continues in the Dakotas — a struggle that is for us all.

* * *

As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundation of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”

Wherever people are on strike; fighting racial, gender, and sexual injustice; defending the environment; challenging income inequality; opposing imperialism and violence; and helping to create alternative visions for our future — that’s where democracy is found!

From King’s example: If the people will lead, eventually the leaders will follow!

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