Dr. King pointed us in the right direction. In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began work on the Poor People’s Campaign, a protest in Washington to focus on economic justice for the poor. The campaign was formed by the poor of various ethnic groups: blacks, whites, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans. The strategy was to focus on the protection of social and economic rights for all, regardless of ethnicity. In this strategy, King was seeking alliance on the basis of common economic interest, giving secondary consideration to the type of alliance that King has sought to form in the early 1960s, which often involved whites in powerful places, and which King called a “coalition of conscience.”
Following King’s assassination on April 3, 1968, the campaign proceeded. It established Resurrection City, a temporary community on the grounds of the Washington monument, and the young SCLC minister Jesse Jackson was named its mayor. However, following the closing of Resurrection City, the “Poor People´s Campaign” lost force.
In 1979, with the taking of hostages at the US embassy in Iran, the national mood took a decisive turn to the Right, beginning what Jesse Jackson described as a “long, dark night of reaction.” Jackson responded to the national turn to the Right in his presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988. Resurrecting and expanding King’s concept of a multi-ethnic coalition among the poor, Jackson sought to attain the protection of social and economic rights through the formation of a “Rainbow Coalition” of workers, farmers, students, small business people, women, blacks, Latinos, and indigenous people. In foreign affairs, influenced by King and Black Nationalist critiques of the world-system, Jackson proposed a policy of North-South cooperation.
However, the Rainbow Coalition was not developed as an alternative mass organization, functioning as nation-wide educational and political organization. I was a Jackson delegate at the Democratic National Convention in 1988, where plans were formulated for the development of the Rainbow Coalition as a mass popular organization. In my home state of South Carolina, we held several meetings for the purposing of establishing the Rainbow Coalition at the state and county level. However, we were not able to do it. During his visit to Presbyterian College to give a public lecture, I talked briefly with Rev. Jackson about the problem, and he appeared unable to help. In the end, the Rainbow Coalition was not developed as a nationwide mass organization.
We need to retake and develop further the King-Jackson idea of a popular coalition. Above all, we must understand that the coalition would seek to take power. King had not yet arrived to understand that it is a question of the people taking power. At the time when his life was cut short, he continued to be oriented to the bringing of popular pressure on those in power, rather than the taking of power by the people. Jackson, on the other hand, understood that it is a question of taking power. But he did not fully grasp that the popular taking of power involves more than a delegate of the people occupying the White House, even if the president brought to office by popular movement is committed to the people and is capable of invoking popular mobilizations in defense of presidential proposals. The popular taking of power requires the development of an alternative political party that also has significant representation in the Congress and that is continually working on the political education of the people.
A reconstituted and more advanced popular coalition that seeks power would stand on the shoulders of giants. Popular movements have emerged throughout the history of the republic, formed by artisans, farmers, workers, women, blacks, Mexican-Americans, students, ecologists and immigrants. However, these historic popular movements have been characterized by divisions and errors, which have prevented the emergence of a popular coalition capable of taking power.
Of the various popular movements, the African-American movement has been the most advanced, advocating the protection of the social and economic rights of all citizens and the development of a foreign policy based on respect for the sovereignty of the nations of the Third World (see “The unresolved issue of race in the USA” 6/23/2015). In the period 1966 to 1972, the movement evolved to a Black Nationalist stage, during which it formulated a penetrating and insightful analysis of the world-system, demonstrating the colonial foundations of the system. However, black power and Black Nationalism had negative consequences with respect to the development of a popular revolutionary movement in the United States. If a revolution is to take power in the name of the people, it must have the united support of the people, who have overcome divisions that have been cultivated by the forces of domination and reaction, such as racial divisions. Black power had the consequence of deepening the political and cultural differences between blacks and whites, and undermining the possibility for united political action.
The workers’ movement in the United States developed in conjunction with the industrial expansion of the United States of 1865 to 1965. Emerging in the context of a culture that excluded blacks, it never was able to overcome the racial divide. To some extent constrained by red-baiting, the workers’ movement evolved to trade union consciousness and to a labor aristocracy in the hegemonic core nation of the capitalist world-economy. Its conservative orientation distanced it not only from the black movement but also the student/anti-war movement of the late 1960s.
The US student movement reached its height from 1965 to 1970. As a result of compulsory conscription in the armed forces and the failure of the US imperialist war in Vietnam, the student movement became an anti-war movement. It was sympathetic to the black power movement, and it formulated anti-imperialist critiques of US foreign policy. Moreover, reacting to the irrelevant curricular design of the bureaucratized university, it demanded greater student voice in university affairs, expecting that this would lead to a curriculum that was more oriented to education for social justice. However, student leaders had few older and more experienced role models, due to a generation gap that alienated students of the 1960s from both the anti-communism and the conventional Marxism of their elders. The result was that the student movement was characterized by superficiality in analysis, infantile and insensitive strategies, and idealist expectations concerning the effects of protest. When the draft ended and the Vietnam War wound down, the student movement rapidly dissipated.
The women’s movement exploded on the social scene in the period 1968 to 1970. It was characterized by penetrating historical analysis of the history of patriarchy since the agricultural revolution and by a critique of legal and cultural forms of gender domination, discrimination, and exclusion. But in the United States, it was conflictive, sometimes insensitive to other forms of domination rooted in colonialism and labor exploitation. It thus contributed to divisions among the people in the critical period of 1968 to 1972. Ultimately, the women’s movement would have more impact on prevailing cultural norms and values than the other popular movements. Women have arrived to positions of power in political and economic institutions of the nation and the world. But women who have arrived to positions of authority do not bring with them a feminist or popular perspective; they contribute to the reproduction of existing power relations.
In 1970, the ecology movement emerged as an important voice on the social landscape. It tended to be oriented to environmental issues, leaving aside questions of colonialism and labor. Like the women’s movement, it expressed itself in a form that contributed to divisions among the people. It ultimately would have great impact on popular consciousness in the nation and the world, but it has been unable to change sufficiently the ecologically destructive policies of governments, in spite of the evident danger that environmental degradation poses to the survival of humanity.
In the development of a reconstituted popular coalition that seeks political power, the historical errors and limitations of the various popular movements would have to be overcome. As I observe revolutionary popular movements in Latin America, I see that they have been able to overcome division and to develop a comprehensive and integrated popular movement that has taken power in several nations and has transformed the political reality of the region. This has been accomplished in spite of the opposition of national and international elites, and in spite of the fact that in 1995 such gains seemed impossible.
Observing what has occurred in Latin America, it seems to me possible to accomplish a similar ideological and political transformation in the United States. It is necessary to do so, and this necessity is a factor that establishes the possibility. Moreover, a number of conditions favor the development of a renewed popular movement that seeks to take power. These conditions include a widespread perception among our people that those in power are not committed to defending the needs of the people. This perception is rooted in the conduct of the elite, which for the past thirty-five years has supported the profits of corporations over the needs of people and nature. Those who are informed about global dynamics should be able to de-legitimate the elite and facilitate the bringing to power of a popular project with an alternative vision for humanity.
It is often said that third political parties do not work in the United States. But this is not entirely true. In two previous important historic movements in the history of the nation, alternative political parties were successfully formed. The first was in the earliest years of the republic, when so-called democratic and republic societies were formed, leading to the formation of the Democratic-Republican Party that elected Thomas Jefferson and that displaced the Whig Party that had been dominated by the elite. And in the 1850s, the Republican Party was formed with an abolitionist platform and elected Abraham Lincoln. It is true that a number of third parties in the twentieth century did not have success. But the lesson that should be drawn is that third parties do not work, if they have a theoretical analysis and a platform that limit their potential constituency. But a third party formed by a popular coalition that addresses the challenges that humanity confronts in an informed and unambiguous way, and that is dedicated to the political education of the people, would be able to transform political and ideological conditions.
As we have seen (“On racism and affirmative action” 6/26/2015), many whites are racist in subtle and even blatant ways. Let us attempt to move beyond racism by offering to the people an alternative that promises protection of their social and economic rights. Let the people see that we have committed our lives and our honor to the fulfillment of this promise.
The peoples of the world are in movement. They seek an alternative world-system based on universal human values. They look with hope to the people of the United States, who, they remember, brought an end to the imperialist war in Vietnam. The peoples of the world will overwhelmingly and enthusiastically come to the aid and support of a revolutionary popular movement in the United States.