Excerpted and adapted from Paul Le Blanc and Michael Yates, “A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).
Inseparable from the goals projected by the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Freedom Budget for All Americans was advanced in 1966 by A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., central leaders of the activist wing of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. It promised the full and final triumph of the civil rights movement. This was to be achieved by going beyond civil rights, linking the goal of racial justice for African Americans with the goal of economic justice for all Americans. Randolph, Rustin, and King – as we document in our book – from their earliest years as activists for social change, believed in the need for a society in which our economy would be socially owned, democratically controlled, and utilized to meet the needs of all people. It can be shown that this socialist commitment was reflected in their strategic orientation to end racism.
The Freedom Budget proposal could be seen, and by some was seen, as being related to the twentieth-century liberalism that was ascendant in U.S. politics from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. But its dimensions and implications were far more radical. It projected the elimination of poverty within a ten-year period, the creation of full employment, decent housing, health care and education for all people in our society as a matter of right. This was to be brought into being by rallying massive segments of the 99% of the American people in a powerfully democratic and moral crusade embracing the civil rights movement, the labor movement, progressive-minded religious communities, students and youth as well as their elders.
The defeat of this effort helped set the stage for an historic defeat for all of these constituencies. The crises of the twenty-first century’s first two decades cannot be separated from these defeats – just as keys to the positive resolution of those crises may be found in an exploration of what the Freedom Budget was, where it came from, what it might have done, and why it was defeated.
This defeat was related, in part, to a well-financed and steady, and soon accelerating, conservative onslaught that culminated in the right-wing triumph of the Reagan-Bush years. If the Freedom Budget had been successful, a majority of the voters would not have responded positively to candidate Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter when the conservative hopeful asked the American people, at the conclusion of a televised 1980 debate: “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go buy things in the stores than it was four years ago?”
The 1980s victory for “free market capitalism” (embraced by most conservative Republicans and by many Democrats in succeeding years) has – sadly – made things worse for the great majority of the people over the four decades that followed, although certainly not for the wealthiest and most powerful 1%. Living standards, health, education, welfare, public transit, urban and natural environments, working conditions, job satisfaction, and more have dramatically declined.
For many U.S. residents back in the 1960s, this future was unimaginable. Since the 1930s, capitalism had yet to face another global downturn, and the common wisdom was that there would not be another. U.S. politics had been more or less dominated by a relatively generous social-liberalism since the coming of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, maintained to a significant degree by Republicans as well as Democrats.
In 2008, many hoped the Presidency of Barack Obama would bring us back to that better, more hopeful, more generous world (personified in the minds of many by John F. Kennedy), and in a way that would be even more inclusive and more just than what had been possible in the 1930s and 1940s of FDR’s America. Obama’s enemies cursed this darkly as “socialism” – and for some of his supporters, that “S” word seemed not so horrible after all. But the realities of the Obama administration never matched his rhetoric, and even his rhetoric fell far short of what Roosevelt eloquently expressed during the Second World War as his vision of the post-war future of the United States, in the call for an Economic Bill of Rights.
The Radicalism of the Civil Rights Movement
In fact, the civil rights movement would not have been successful, to the extent that it was, without the active involvement of conscious and organized socialists.
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, in a survey of the scholarship covering the complex and multifaceted story of what she calls the “long civil rights movement,” has noted that both conservative and liberal defenders of the social-economic-political status quo have done much to dilute and “sanitize” what really happened. Martin Luther King Jr. is presented as “this narrative’s defining figure – frozen in 1963, proclaiming ‘I have a dream’ during the march on the Mall.” Selective quotes, repeated over and over and over, result in his message losing its “political bite”:
We hear little of the King who believed that “the racial issue that we confront in America is not a sectional but a national problem” and who attacked segregation in the urban North. Erased altogether is the King who opposed the Vietnam War and linked racism at home to militarism and imperialism abroad. Gone is King the democratic socialist who advocated unionization, planned the Poor People’s Campaign, and was assassinated in 1968 while supporting a sanitation workers’ strike.For more, go to the TruthDig site at which this Monthly Review book excerpt first appeared.