Published: Sunday 26 August 2012
“It seems that in order to properly understand, study, and develop nonviolent revolution, one must analyze the world from a truly anti-imperialist, internationalist, holistic and Global South perspective.”

Amidst occupations and uprisings, mass mobilizations and stirring campaigns this year, the question of how to best connect our ideals with more pragmatic considerations has been a constant refrain. Discussions about tactics and their philosophical underpinnings have gotten particularly heated. Often these debates have been based as much on rhetoric and theory as on a careful reading of actual history.

Recent articles on this site by Stephanie Van Hook and Cynthia Boaz have addressed these concerns in poignant ways. And while I feel indebted to these, I have grown less interested in the debate between so-called principled nonviolence and strategic nonviolent action, which I fear may at times be doing more to maintain false dichotomies than to build movements which make these ultimately simplistic terms as insignificant as they nearly always have been in times of tumult and rebellion.

Decades prior to pitching my own tent somewhere along the continuum of definitions of violence and nonviolence, I was primarily an activist. New York City then was fraught with every small, sectarian group let, with leaders of every major and minor leftist tendency divided by every FBI Counter Intelligence Program trick in the book. It seemed only logical to try to get people with essentially similar ideas to at least occasionally work together. Of course, nonviolent activists or pacifists made up only a small (but influential) percentage of those seeking peace with justice. In that context, I felt pushed to be less of an “absolute” pacifist (or absolute anything) and more of a revolutionary, less of an ideologue and more of a pragmatist.

One of the first lessons I learned was to take a long view of ...

Published: Thursday 23 August 2012
While publicly touted as a law intended to inhibit voter impersonation at the polls, its real intent was explained in a rare moment of candor by Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, who,bragged, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: Done.”

 

People remember 1929 as the year of the stock-market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, the global economic disaster which remains the only one in history that dwarfs the one in which we now find ourselves. It was also the year Martin Luther King Jr. was born, who wouldn’t live to see 40 years. And it was the year that Langston Hughes graduated from Lincoln University, outside Philadelphia.

Hughes, the grandson of abolitionists and voting-rights activists, was an African-American writer. His poem “A Dream Deferred” begins:

“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

 

And then run?”

Hughes left Lincoln University, one of the 105 historically black colleges and universities in the U.S., and spent the rest of his life campaigning for civil and human rights. He died in 1967, two years after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

Almost 80 years after his graduation, Lincoln students eagerly awaited the opportunity to cast their vote, many no doubt for the first major-party African-American candidate for president, Barack Obama. For years, the Chester County Board ...

Published: Wednesday 22 August 2012
“Our own generation urgently needs to spur another era of great social change. This time, we must act to save the planet from a human-induced environmental catastrophe.”

Great social change occurs in several ways. A technological breakthrough – the steam engine, computers, the Internet – may play a leading role. Visionaries, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela, may inspire a demand for justice. Political leaders may lead a broad reform movement, as with Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Our own generation urgently needs to spur another era of great social change. This time, we must act to save the planet from a human-induced environmental catastrophe.

 

Each of us senses this challenge almost daily. Heat waves, droughts, floods, forest fires, retreating glaciers, polluted rivers, and extreme storms buffet the planet at a dramatically rising rate, owing to human activities. Our $70-trillion-per-year global economy is putting unprecedented pressures on the natural environment. We will need new technologies, behaviors, and ethics, supported by solid evidence, to reconcile further economic development with environmental sustainability.

 

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is taking on this unprecedented challenge from his unique position at the crossroads of global politics and society. At the political level, the UN is the meeting place for 193 member states to negotiate and create international law, as in the important treaty on climate change adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. At the level of global society, the UN represents the world’s citizenry, “we the peoples,” as it says in the UN Charter.  At the societal level, the UN is about the rights and responsibilities of all of us, including future generations.

 

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Published: Wednesday 22 February 2012
“The mainstream media seemed to think this damned the Occupy movement, though it made the camps, at worst, a whole lot like the rest of the planet, which, in case you hadn’t noticed, seethes with violence against women.”

When you fall in love, it’s all about what you have in common, and you can hardly imagine that there are differences, let alone that you will quarrel over them, or weep about them, or be torn apart by them—or if all goes well, struggle, learn and bond more strongly because of, rather than despite, them. The Occupy movement had its glorious honeymoon when old and young, liberal and radical, comfortable and desperate, homeless and tenured all found that what they had in common was so compelling the differences hardly seemed to matter.

Until they did.

Revolutions are always like this: at first all men are brothers and anything is possible, and then, if you’re lucky, the romance of that heady moment ripens into a relationship, instead of a breakup, an abusive marriage or a murder-suicide. Occupy had its golden age, when those who never before imagined living side-by-side with homeless people found themselves in adjoining tents in public squares.

All sorts of other equalizing forces were present, not least the police brutality that battered the 

Published: Tuesday 17 January 2012
“Across the country — from the beaches of Florida to the high hills of Washington state and monuments in the nation’s capital — Americans gathered Monday to commemorate the slain civil rights leader’s peaceful spirit.”

The different colors of their hands intertwined as the fifth-graders raised their arms in solidarity. Their screams of "Free at last!" carried down to the bottom of the Lincoln Memorial's steps.

From these same steps nearly a half-century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a world in which "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers," in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.

Across the country — from the beaches of Florida to the high hills of Washington state and monuments in the nation's capital — Americans gathered Monday to commemorate the slain civil rights leader's peaceful spirit. Many spent Martin Luther King Jr. Day volunteering in their communities or speaking out about inequalities that persist in education and elsewhere in America.

Others visited the newly completed memorial to King on the National Mall in Washington.

At a ceremony in the nation's capital, officials and activists laid three wreaths in front of King's stone statue — the only monument on the mall dedicated to an American who wasn't a president — as several attendees softly sang, "We Shall Overcome," an anthem of the civil rights movement.

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Published: Monday 16 January 2012
“We honor King today by opposing the new push for right-to-work laws in Northern states and by campaigning to overturn the right-to-work laws passed decades ago by the Jim Crow legislatures of Southern states that were determined to prevent the arc of history from bending toward justice.”

When the Congress of Industrial Organizations launched “Operation Dixie” in the aftermath of World War II, with the goal not just of organizing unions in the states of the old Confederacy but of ending Jim Crow discrimination, Southern segregationists moved immediately to establish deceptively named “right-to-work” laws.

These measures were designed to make it dramatically harder for workers to organize unions and for labor organizations to advocate for workers on the job site or for social change in their communities and states.

In short order, all the states that had seceded from the Union in order to maintain slavery had laws designed to prevent unions from fighting against segregation. The strategy worked. Southern states have far weaker unions than Northern states, and labor struggles have been far more bitter and violent in the South than in other parts of the country. It was in a right-to-work state, Tennessee, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while supporting the struggle of African-American sanitation workers to organize a union and have it recognized by the ...

Published: Monday 16 January 2012
“The plaza surrounding King’s statue opens up to the Tidal Basin as if to demonstrate how our nation, at its best, embraces possibility.”

He would be an elder statesman now, a lion in winter, an American hero perhaps impatient with the fuss being made over his birthday. At 83, he’d likely still have his wits and his voice. Surely, if he were able, he would continue to preach, to pray — and to dream.

For the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., dreaming was not optional. It was a requirement of citizenship to envision a fairer, more prosperous nation no longer shackled by racism and poverty. It was a duty to imagine a world no longer ravaged by senseless wars. His most famous speech was less an invitation to share his epic dream than a commandment.

 

In these sour, pessimistic times, it is important to remember the great lesson of King’s remarkable life: Impossible dreams can come true.

This is not a partisan message; King was every bit as tough on Democrats as Republicans. His activism even transcended ideology. His call for social justice and his opposition to the Vietnam War were rightly seen as liberal, but his insistence on the primacy of faith and family was deeply conservative. His birthday is a national holiday because his words and deeds ennoble us all.

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Published: Sunday 15 January 2012
“That the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s would be based on Gandhian strategic nonviolent action partly resulted from the success of the Alabama city’s exquisitely unified black community.”

How does one learn nonviolent resistance? The same way that Martin Luther King Jr. did—by study, reading and interrogating seasoned tutors. King would eventually become the person most responsible for advancing and popularizing Gandhi’s ideas in the United States, by persuading black Americans to adapt the strategies used against British imperialism in India to their own struggles. Yet he was not the first to bring this knowledge from the subcontinent.

By the 1930s and 1940s, via ocean voyages and propeller airplanes, a constant flow of prominent black leaders were traveling to India. College presidents, professors, pastors and journalists journeyed to India to meet Gandhi and study how to forge mass struggle with nonviolent means. Returning to the United States, they wrote articles, preached, lectured and passed key documents from hand to hand for study by other black leaders. Historian Sudarshan Kapur has shown that the ideas of Gandhi were moving vigorously from India to the United States at that time, and the African   American news media reported on the Indian independence struggle. Leaders in the black community talked about a “black Gandhi” for the United States. One woman called it “raising up a prophet,” which Kapur used as the title of his book.

While a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania, King was intrigued by reading Thoreau and Gandhi, yet had not actually studied Gandhi in depth. A friend, J. Pius Barbour, remembered the young seminarian arguing on behalf of Gandhian methods with a reckoning based on arithmetic—that ...

Published: Saturday 14 January 2012
“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.”

"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 ...

Published: Saturday 19 November 2011
“This year, thirty-four state legislatures introduced bills requiring photo identification in order to vote. This rash of legislation classifies several previously accepted IDs as unacceptable, and will affect roughly 21 million Americans if they are passed.”

Ninety-seven-year-old Emma Lee Green balances an armload of old books and yellowing papers around the stacks of musty files in her San Bernardino attic. She remembers well the days of Jim Crow, poll taxes and literacy tests that barred many African-American citizens from the voting booth.

Americans set their clocks back one hour last Sunday. But a wave of new voting restrictions could turn back the clock to the days poll taxes and literacy tests meant to stop African-Americans from voting.

She witnessed first-hand the valiant struggle to ensure that all American citizens could raise their voices on Election Day.

Like she has done for nearly 65 years, last week Emma went to the polls to vote in the local elections.

But one year from now, mill ions of Black Americans like Emma could find themselves shut out of that essential democratic right.

This year, thirty-four state legislatures introduced bills requiring photo identification in order to vote. This rash of legislation classifies several previously accepted IDs as unacceptable, and will affect roughly 21 million Americans if they are passed.

With the election season on the horizon a new report is warning the legal disenfranchisement of voters threatens to play a decisive role in next year’s vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a non partisan policy institute change to voting laws could strip the voting rights of more than 5 million people, a higher number than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections.

It’s findings show that new laws regarding photo identification requirements for voting, eliminating same day voter registration in several states, requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, changing requirements for voter registration drives, reducing early voting days and restoring the right to vote for convicted felons will make voting harder and swing the 1964 Voting Rights pendulum backward.

The ...

Published: Monday 17 October 2011
On the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, with fellow activists, he called out the high court for making decisions that allow corporations to dominate the economic life and the politics of the nation.

On the day that President Obama and others celebrated the memory of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the dedication of Washington's King memorial, Dr. Cornel West was a few blocks away—celebrating King with activism on behalf of economic justice and the "Occupy" movement.

After attending the dedication of the King memorial, West joined a "Stop the Machine! Create a New World!" protest march.

On the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, with fellow activists, he called out the high court for making decisions that allow corporations to dominate the economic life and the politics of the nation.

"We want to bear witness today that we know the relation between corporate greed and what goes on too often in the Supreme Court decisions," West declared. "We want to send a lesson to ourselves, to our loved ones, our families, our communities, our nation and the world, that out of deep love for working and poor people that we are willing to put whatever it takes (on the line)—even if we get arrested today—and say we will not allow this day of Martin Luther King Jr's memorial to go by without somebody going to jail. Because Martin King would be here right with us, willing to throw down out of deep love."

Then, the author of "Race Matters," "Democracy Matters" and other groundbreaking books written in the King tradition sat down on the steps of the court with at least 18 protesters.

"We are here to bear witness, in solidarity with the Occupy movement all around the world because we love poor people, we love working people, and we want Martin Luther King Jr. to smile from the ...

Published: Friday 26 August 2011
“We’re not advancing toward the fulfillment of King’s dream. We’re heading in the opposite direction.”

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is revealed to members of the press before opening to the public. The design is derived from part of King's famous "I have a dream" speech when he said, "With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope." The memorial sits by the tidal basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.

As the nation honors the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with a stirring new memorial on the National Mall, let’s not obscure one of his most important messages in a fog of sentiment. Justice, he told us, is not just a legal or moral question but a matter of economics as well.

In this sense, we’re not advancing toward the fulfillment of King’s dream. We’re heading in the opposite direction.

Aug. 28 is the anniversary of the 1963 march and rally at which King delivered the indelible “I Have a Dream” speech. That event — one of the watershed moments of 20th-century America — was officially called the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Meaningful employment was a front-and-center demand.

The idea and impetus for the march came from A. Philip Randolph, one of the most important labor ...

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