Occupy: Resurrecting Rev. King's Final Dream
Leo W. Gerard
International President, United Steelworkers
In public squares across the country, Occupy protesters
honor Rev. Martin Luther King's memory on this holiday
devoted to him. Their tribute is more meaningful and
enduring than the granite monument that President Obama
dedicated to Rev. King in Washington, D.C. last year.
That's because the Occupiers are pressing for a cause
-- economic justice -- that Rev. King had embraced in
the months before his assassination in 1968. And
they're pursuing it with the technique he advocated -
Rev. King's final crusade, his Poor People's Campaign,
and the Occupiers' championing the nation's 99 percent
are remarkable in their similarities. It's tragic that
in the 44 years since Rev. King launched his campaign
for an economic Bill of Rights that the nation's poor
and middle class have lurched backward instead of
forward. It's hopeful, however, that a whole new
generation of idealists has taken up the dream of
In the year before Rev. King was gunned down, he
persuaded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
to join him in a movement devoted to securing for all
citizens the basic needs that would enable them to
pursue the American Dream, to pursue happiness. He
believed every able-bodied person should have access to
a job with a living wage. And he believed every
American should have decent housing and affordable
health care. Without economic security, he said, no man
Rev. King's dream has its roots in the progressive
movement, containing key elements of Democrat Franklin
D. Roosevelt's proposed Economic Bill of Rights.
Roosevelt, the beloved president who gave the country
Social Security, pushed the Economic Bill of Rights in
the waning days of the war.
Roosevelt said the original Bill of Rights had made the
country great, but its political entitlements had
proved inadequate to assure Americans equal opportunity
to pursue happiness. The president who had pulled the
country out of the Great Depression, the man born to
great wealth, warned:
"People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff
of which dictatorships are made."
So he advocated a second Bill of Rights "under which a
new basis of security and prosperity can be established
for all -- regardless of station, race or creed."
Among the rights Roosevelt proposed were a sustaining
job, a decent home and adequate medical care.
Just 24 years later, Rev. King took up that cause for
all people -- regardless of station, race or creed. He
was murdered before completing plans for a march on
Washington. But just weeks after his death, his widow
and fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference
ministers, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Ralph
Abernathy, led protesters into the capital city on May
They went to federal offices seeking anti-poverty
legislation. Then they established a shantytown called
Resurrection City. Its huts and tents extended the
length of the reflecting pool. As many as 1,800 people
camped there through virtually continuous rain. The bad
weather, the mud, the lingering trauma from Rev. King's
assassination and the murder of Robert Kennedy on June
5, 1968, just a few weeks into the encampment,
depressed the protesters.
In a recording from those difficult days, Rev. Jackson
can be heard attempting to rally the demonstrators with
"I am. Somebody. I am. God's Child. I may not have a
job, but I am somebody."
The crowd repeated Rev. Jackson's words, just like the
"human microphone" used by the Occupiers today.
After six weeks, 1,000 park police surrounded
Resurrection City, routed the remaining protesters with
tear gas and razed the structures. This is prescient of
the fate of too many Occupy encampments, from the
original in New York's Zuccotti Park to its twin across
the country in Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza.
After destruction of the shantytown in 1968, Rev.
"Resurrection City cannot be seen as a mud hole in
Washington, but it is rather an idea unleashed in
history. The idea has taken root and is growing across
After the Occupy Wall Street evictions, protesters said
"You can't evict an idea whose time has come."
Still, the Resurrection City protesters didn't get what
they came for. They had sought major legislation to
give opportunity to America's poor. At that time, 13
percent of the nation's population -- 25 million people
-- lived in poverty.
Today, it's worse; nearly twice as many Americans --
46.2 million -- live in poverty. The rate is worse as
well -- 15.1 percent.
In addition, in the past decade the gap between rich
and poor widened. In the past five years since the
great recession began, banks evicted record numbers of
families from their homes. And Republicans are
threatening to repeal health care reform, the one
achievement bringing the nation closer to an economic
Bill of Rights.
No wonder protesters resurrected Resurrection City.
What Rev. King preached and what many Occupiers seem to
believe is that paramount in a republic is job
creation, not wealth creation. The duty of government
is not to ensure that the rich get richer but to
establish equal opportunity for individuals to achieve
freedom, independence and happiness.
Without a job -- without adequate income -- freedom,
independence and happiness are impossible.
"This is America's opportunity to help bridge the gulf
between the haves and the have-nots. The question is
whether America will do it. There is nothing new about
poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques
and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real
question is whether we have the will."
Those are Rev. King's words. The Occupiers have shown
they have the will to achieve his dream.
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