Around the country, the official celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday will be folded into a celebration the next day of Barack Obama's inauguration as the nation's first Black president. The historic inauguration is likely to evoke the same carnivalesque atmosphere that took place on election night, with celebrations in Washington, D.C. providing inspiration for smaller events throughout the country and around the world.
While Obama's election signals an opportunity for change, there is little agreement about what kind of change is needed or how we will achieve it. With global capitalism teetering on the edge of catastrophe, the U.S. bogged down in two foreign occupations, and with little time left to reduce global warming, this is an important moment to reflect upon the civil rights movement's largely forgotten program for "change."
Many Americans are generally aware that the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 broke the back of Jim Crow racial segregation in the U.S. South. But "freedom is not enough," President Lyndon Johnson announced in 1965 after the passage of the civil rights movement's landmark legislation. "We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result."
When Johnson declared a War on Poverty, he was responding to and joining forces with the Civil Rights Movement. Through the War on Poverty, Civil Rights Movement activists went from being unpaid organizers to staffing federal agencies and overseeing programs that built low-income housing, developed early childhood education, trained low-income youth for jobs, and more. To hold Johnson's feet to the fire, the movement's leaders announced their demand in 1966 for a "Freedom Budget" to sustain the War on Poverty. The brainchild of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the Freedom Budget called for a national goal of ending poverty within 10 years.
Randolph and Rustin were cautious not to criticize the War in Vietnam because they feared it would generate a backlash against the civil rights movement. But their silence left them defenseless when the war's escalation absorbed any money that might have gone toward eliminating poverty. This is a major reason why, in 1967, Martin Luther King broke with his colleagues, declared that "a time comes when silence is betrayal," and announced his opposition to the Vietnam War.
"It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both Black and white, through the poverty program," King recalled in his famous speech at Riverside Church. "Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched as this program was broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive, suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and attack it as such."
King's opposition to the war lost him the ear of President Johnson, damaged his credibility with the mainstream media, and cost him the support of important philanthropists. One year later, both he and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and Richard Nixon's election signaled the beginning of a long retreat from racial justice, government regulation of the economy, and spending on social welfare programs.
We are only now just emerging from this "40-year political ice age," as Cornel West has described it. But as people increasingly compare our current circumstances to the 1930s, the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, and of King's opposition to the War in Vietnam, are being forgotten.
The federal government is currently faced with budget deficits in excess of $1 trillion per year, roughly equivalent to the combined cost of the U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet Obama does not plan to scale back the War on Terror, and he has not appointed one opponent of the Iraq War to his foreign policy team.
Meanwhile, state governments nationwide have seen their tax bases shrink, creating budget crises that threaten the long-term viability of public education, environmental protection, and what little remains of our social safety net. Yet instead of visionary leadership, we have what Paul Krugman has called "50 Herbert Hoovers." Our governors, most of them Democrats, are threatening budget cuts so deep that they will undermine a federal recovery program and deepen our slide into an economic Depression.
Clearly, Obama's election is not enough to bring the change we need. We also need a popular movement to revive the "freedom budget" across the country. This means not just stopping the suicidal budget cuts our Governors have proposed, but uniting behind emergency alternatives (tax reform and increased government spending) to keep us from sliding further into a depression.
But these alternatives can't just be about bailouts for Wall St. or Main St. As King reminded us, "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death." Only when we have a "revolution of values" to develop alternatives to war will we find the economic resources and political will necessary to turn around this economic crisis. Only then can we fulfill King's dream and create a just society for all.