“We could use a massive, dramatic confrontation on behalf of the more than 27 million who are unemployed or underemployed today,” I wrote one year ago. “The spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. would certainly be in its midst.”
Little did I know when I wrote those words that something called Occupy Wall Street would spring up as the people’s movement I was hoping for, calling attention not just to unemployment but to the overarching issue of economic inequality and the unjust concentration of wealth at the top in America.
What I was imagining a year ago was a movement that would evoke the spirit of the Poor People’s Campaign, the economic justice campaign that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched before his death in 1968. That campaign spawned what some would call the original “Occupy D.C.”—an encampment on the Mall called Resurrection City.
King saw the realities of poverty and disparities in economic opportunity in America as being swept in a dark corner where they could be ignored. His response was to call for “dramatic nonviolent action to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”
So, he said, “we are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.”
Some of the parallels between Resurrection City and the longer-standing Occupy encampments are striking. When Resurrection City was constricted on the national Mall, it drew a rainbow of idealistic progressive crusaders as well as civil rights leaders. After a high-energy, hopeful start, the encampment’s spirit began to buckle under torrential rains and internal conflicts. It ended ignominiously with a police crackdown.
And yet, when a few years ago a public radio documentary was done featuring some of the Poor People’s Campaign participants, they reminded the nation of the landmark accomplishments that the Mall encampment fostered.
“I think Resurrection City is remembered as a failure, but even its failure lifted us to higher ground. At least, that’s how I view it,” said the Rev. Walter Fauntroy, an associate of Dr. King who became Washington D.C’s first elected delegate to Congress.
“I think it’s really important for people to know that, while they went back home in despair and depressed, a lot of follow-up occurred which did lead to major federal investment in nationwide nutrition programs, like food stamps and school lunches. So the Poor People’s Campaign struggle was not in vain,” said Marian Wright Edelman, who went on to lead the Children’s Defense Fund.
In the same manner, the Occupy movement has dramatically changed the political discourse, putting the spotlight on such issues as income inequality, vulture capitalism and the influence of money in politics. This, too, is a movement that can lift us to higher ground if we effectively use the opportunity to offer a compelling, progressive vision of how democracy and the economy can work for everyone, not just the few.