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A Beggar-Producing Edifice 

Larry Beinhart's Body Politic

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Martin Luther King Jr. transformed America in nine short years.

In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man, and King, a 25-year-old pastor, led the Montgomery bus boycott. Nonviolence became a propaganda triumph in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, when Bull Conner, Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety, turned fire hoses and snarling police dogs on peaceful protestors. Later that summer, a crowd of 250,000 people filled the lawns from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument. King gave the speech he is most famous for, "I Have a Dream."

On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was shot. Lyndon Johnson made the Civil Rights Act his first order of business. It passed in July 1964. In December of that year, King got the Nobel Peace Prize.

But then the movement stalled. It seemed to go wrong in every direction at once. "White backlash" rose up and became a politically significant issue even before the Civil Rights Act was passed. It would be part of Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964 and essential to Richard Nixon's victory in 1968. White Southerners dug in. A change in the law didn't mean a change in practice, if they couldn't have Jim Crow laws, they'd have de facto segregation, just like up north.

King tried to bring his movement north. The resistance there was greater than in the South. He was essentially driven out of Chicago. The battle there was between local white residents and home owners and blacks who wanted to move into their neighborhoods, not between well-dressed marchers who only wanted to vote and thuggish police, so it didn't even bring King a propaganda victory.

Many of King's own disciples were ready to become more radical. Stokely Carmichael, who used the term black power, considered nonviolence just a tactic, not a principle. In 1966, the Black Panthers were formed.

In 1965 black riots exploded where they were least expected, in the promised land of California. Looters in Watts yelled "Burn, baby, burn" while their own neighborhoods went up in flames. In 1966, it was Chicago, Cleveland, and Omaha. Rioting broke out in 159 cities in 1967, the year of the Long Hot Summer.

The triumph of 1964 was being called a failure two years later. King quoted Ramparts magazine: "After more than a decade of the Civil Rights Movement the black American is worse off today than he was 10 years ago. The Movement is in despair because it has been forced to recognize the Negro revolution as a myth."

It was time to reevaluate. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went off to Jamaica. He rented a house with no telephone. He wrote what would turn out to be his final book, Where Do We Go from Here? It evaluated the movement's accomplishments and its failures, which were great, and he tried to dig deeper, to get down into the depths of the problem so that he might find a way out. It is a work that is still startlingly relevant today.

He describes the effect of white backlash on politics: "Men long regarded as political clowns had become governors or only narrowly missed election, their magic achieved with a witches' brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths, and whole lies." Except for the specificity of "governors" it's as good a description of the campaign to become the Republican nominee for president as anything from Jon Stewart.

There are some things he says that make us realize that we've gone backwards:"Early in this century economic status was considered the measure of the individual's ability and talents." And so it is again.

Listen to Mitt Romney: "In the thinking of that day, the absence of worldly goods indicated a want of industrious habits and moral fiber." And so it is again.

Listen to New Gingrich: "We've come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. Today the poor are less often dismissed, I hope, from our consciences by being branded as inferior or incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands, it does not eliminate all poverty."

I'm sorry, Dr. King, we seem to have headed back to even before your time. The only part of your statement that would meet with agreement today would be that the economy does not eliminate all poverty, but now it leads to acceptance. It's like unemployment. There's always a certain amount of it around. So, let em live with it. King advocates taking the money being wasted on an "unjust and evil" war, and creating full employment or a guaranteed annual income:

"There are 40 million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, 'Why are there 40 million poor people in America?' And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised."

Here we are, 40 years later, and if anyone stood up and spoke like King did, he'd be branded a radical, a socialist, a communist, and accused of fomenting class warfare and the politics of envy. It could serve as a manifesto for the Main Street Movement, for Occupy Wall Street, for a revitalized union movement, and even, if they ever awaken from their long Rip Van Winkle nap, the Democratic Party.

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  • Larry Beinhart's Body Politic


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