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King's Fight for Economic Rights: Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Cornel West on MLK

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Publication Date: 
August 25, 2011

From a National Journal interview with Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., reflecting on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. ahead of the dedication of a new memorial to the civil rights leader on the National Mall.

"Dr. King ... marched for legislation that changed America—public accommodation, voting rights, open housing—and died fighting in a multiracial coalition for legislation to end poverty.

But I think, eventually, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dr. King would have concluded that we need something more than progressive legislation for protection; we need something permanent in the Constitution—i.e., new economic constitutional amendments.

In 1944, FDR said we needed "an American standard of living higher than ever before known." The Constitution, he said, provided "certain inalienable political rights," but it needed a "Second Bill of Rights" to provide economic security for all Americans.

The "Poor Peoples' Campaign," an economic movement, was Dr. King's last crusade. If he had lived, I believe Dr. King would have fought to add new amendments to the Constitution, guaranteeing economic rights. It was this personal insight into Dr. King, in part, that inspired me to write A More Perfect Union and to introduce House Joint Resolutions 28-36 [which include proposals to add the rights to education and health care to the U.S. Constitution].

Dr. King's message is more relevant today than ever. My appeal to contemporary civil rights organizations is to not just guard against the erosion of civil rights—i.e., protect civil rights gains—but fight for human rights [...]."

From an August 25, 2011, New York Times op-ed by Cornel West, a philospher and professor at Princeton:

[...] The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.

As the talk show host Tavis Smiley and I have said in our national tour against poverty, the recent budget deal is only the latest phase of a 30-year, top-down, one-sided war against the poor and working people in the name of a morally bankrupt policy of deregulating markets, lowering taxes and cutting spending for those already socially neglected and economically abandoned. Our two main political parties, each beholden to big money, offer merely alternative versions of oligarchic rule.

The absence of a King-worthy narrative to reinvigorate poor and working people has enabled right-wing populists to seize the moment with credible claims about government corruption and ridiculous claims about tax cuts’ stimulating growth. This right-wing threat is a catastrophic response to King’s four catastrophes; its agenda would lead to hellish conditions for most Americans.  [...]

King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.

In concrete terms, this means support for progressive politicians like Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Los Angeles County supervisor; extensive community and media organizing; civil disobedience; and life and death confrontations with the powers that be. Like King, we need to put on our cemetery clothes and be coffin-ready for the next great democratic battle.

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