Editor’s Note: Upon the 25th year of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s first run for president of the United States, we asked him to write his thoughts on the state of Black America at this point in history, focusing on the question, Where Do We Go From Here?
It’s been big month. A jobs summit, the beginning of another escalation in Afghanistan a Nobel Peace Prize speech in Oslo, a climate change conference in Copenhagen, a possible end game for the Senate on health care, and a jobs summit and what I hope will be the start of an effective national jobs program that puts America back to work.
December 10th also marked Human Rights Day, the 61st anniversary of the day the post-WWII world adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is an appropriate day to consider “where we go from here.”
I’m always reminded that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. authored the essay, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
An ascendant civil rights movement organized the1963 March on Washington, the historic 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery – a movement that led to passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. But by January 1967 when he wrote the “Where do we go from here” essay, the civil rights struggle was on its heels, searching for direction and strategy.
His query is especially appropriate right now. It is even more auspicious, as President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize this December 10th, 45 years to the day that the 35 year-old Dr. King was so honored. In a way, we’ve reached another apex in our movement, the culmination of a 54 year civil rights journey from the 1954 Brown decision ending legal segregation, winning civil and voting rights in the 60’s, organizing our Rainbow campaigns of the 1980s through to the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008.
Eight years of failed Bush Administrations left the economy on the brink of disastrous depression. One year ago, people in the U.S. voted for change and a new direction. In so doing, they inspired and unleashed the power of hope around the world to break down old barriers of cynicism, doubt and disbelief. But just one year after President Obama’s election, stiff winds of resistance are blowing from all directions. It’s been some time since we’ve witnessed such a sustained, ideologically inspired campaign to smear and vilify a President, to drown out rationale public debate and discourse, and circumvent the people’s desire for progressive change. Wall Street has rebounded from the brink of collapse. But the sub-prime mortgage crisis ballooned into a full-scale foreclosure crisis. Student debt is soaring and jeopardizing the education of our youth. Unemployment is up, and so is global warming. Hope is up, too, but unfortunately so is poverty. Yes, it’s mid-day in our politics, but midnight in our economy. We must have the clear vision and strong will to ride out the storms of the long night until the sun rises and we reach the dawn of a new day.
Where do we go from here?
Perhaps we should go to our Biblical mission statement: bring good news to the needy, to feed the poor, heal the brokenhearted, care for the sick, and set the oppressed free. Bring good news to the needy by creating a Stimulus II that targets the zones of pain. Stimulus I focused on the zones of gain. They’ve watered the leaves of speculation while the roots of investment have withered. Wall Street now is paying bonuses, but the big banks still aren’t lending to the real economy. We need direct, targeted jobs programs, and the expansion of lending to spur small business development. It is time to focus on helping those who are the victims of, not the cause of, the crisis.
Care for the sick by enacting comprehensive, accessible and affordable health care for all Americans. Republicans have taken a stand to crush the health care bill. Blue Dog conservatives have taken a stand to circumvent and undermine it. So must progressive stand up and fight for inclusion of the public option and create public support the President and Congress need to pass a comprehensive health care bill before year’s end. In our Rainbow campaigns of 1984 and 1988, I campaigned from coast to coast for comprehensive health care for all at a time when “only” 37 million Americans were without health insurance. Twenty years later, that number has risen to a totally unacceptable 45 million. We must do better, and now is the time.
House the homeless by confronting the home foreclosure crisis threatening to tear the heart and soul of America’s communities. A record high four million families will face foreclosure this year alone, but another 13 million homeowners will face foreclosure in the next five years. To date just 4 percent, or 10,000 of the 728,000 homeowners seeking assistance, have received permanent loan modifications under the administration’s Home Affordable Modification Program. That’s like dipping a spoon in the ocean, as foreclosures continue to outstrip modifications. We need a comprehensive, effective foreclosure prevention/save our homes program to “save homes for the holidays” - to protect not just the most distressed families in their time of need, but also to protect their neighborhoods, the community tax base, the public services which depend on having a healthy housing infrastructure.
Where do we go from here?
Heal the broken hearted by addressing the employment demands of the 8 million workers who have lost their jobs in the last 18 months. Decades of misguided urban policies undermined our nation’s manufacturing base - we export capital and jobs, and import drugs and guns. We’ve decimated whole cities. The hope of the recent jobs summit is that it will invest immediately and directly in job preservation and creation.
None of this can happen unless we strengthen and enforce civil rights and fair lending laws. This crisis took place in large part because predatory lending and reckless gambling were celebrated, not policed. Laws against discriminatory lending were ignored. Consumer protection laws were diluted, as subprime lenders, payday operators and credit card loan sharks had their way. The administration has sensibly called for a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, but while the banking lobby descends on Congress, the administration should be using the powers it has to enforce the law. Furthermore, as world leaders gather in Copenhagen to grapple with the real dangers of global warming, we need to get serious about a new alternative energy economy, about green jobs and weatherization, about replacing coal and oil with wind and solar. Free the oppressed with a Stimulus II, a new war on poverty to set the oppressed free. Eight million families and 40 million Americans, or 13%, live in poverty; fourteen million children under 18 were in poverty. In 2008, 49 million people lived didn’t have enough to eat, including 17 million children. In 2002, 35 million went hungry, a number that has increased by 50% since then. In the end, this administration and our nation will be judged by how we treat the least of these. The “other America” which shocked President Kennedy still exists, hemmed in by stunted hopes, circumscribed lives, broken dreams.
Where do we go from here?
The President’s new policy of escalating and expanding the war in Afghanistan is risky and expensive, and, despite a projected date to begin troop withdrawal, there is no end in sight. The war on terror a real one, but it’s a 21st century problem that cannot be “won” by using 20th century strategies of military conquest. In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Dr. King made these time-tested remarks, ”...Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral question of our time—the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to violence and oppression.” We hope the President’s plan is successful, and pray for the earliest return home of the 100,000 troops who will be sent to war in Afghanistan… but doubts abound.
Where do we go from here?
We stay true to the principles that Dr. King lived and died for, and we rebuild our grassroots movement to press for serious change, structural reforms, peace and justice. Progressives have been far too silent, too passive in face in face of winds of resistance and vitriolic reaction. It’s time to stand up and be counted, to assert our progressive principles, and put a focus on policies and direction, not personality.
We celebrate last year’s election, which ended the years of regression, repression and recession brought on during the Republican-dominated Bush years. But we can’t stop there.
I’m reminded of the apocryphal stories of FDR and the labor movement in the 1930s, and LBJ and the civil rights movement in the 1960s. As the stories go, the movement leaders met with these presidents and presented their demands, to which these FDR or LBJ, in effect, replied: “I support you—now go out and make me do it. I agree with you, but I don’t have the votes in Congress, so go get them!” We need to build a movement on President Obama’s progressive flank that is impossible to ignore.
We need to give political voice to our better ideals.
Isaiah speaks of beauty from the ashes, where ashes abound beauty must abound even more. Where hatred abounds, love must abound even more. Where fear abounds, love and hope must abound even more. Fear limits us – hope unleashes creative genius. Those hit the hardest by this crisis – those in the zones of pain - must organize. Often, the malnourished children, the homeless, the jobless, those families forced from homes to shelters are largely hidden from sight. It’s time to rise up and be seen. By acting collectively, the poor express their humanity. They create a forum to tell their stories. It is time to act, to come together and march together. Human lives are being crushed by this crisis. We need bold action now. We must act together to make our voices heard, in the streets and in the suites.
Absent an active and vocal movement, we cannot make our hopes for change a lasting and concrete reality.
It’s where we must go from here. Keep Hope Alive.