A History Lesson from Dr. King for Reformers
The consequences of party-dominated elections; of closed party primaries, gerrymandered districts, and major party control of the ballot, of the media and of the debates, in addition to the partisan dominance of the very ways in which issues are framed and discussed -- the consequences of all this is to block the full and open participation of the American people in shaping the country in which we live.
The habit of secret political bargains between elites started early in America. For example, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the critical compromise that, according to the historian Joseph Ellis, author of Founding Brothers:
James Madison considered the most consequential of all the secret deals made in Philadelphia even more so than the “Great Compromise” between large and small states over representation in the Senate and House...was the exchange of votes whereby New England agreed to back an extension of the slave trade for 20 years in return for support from the Deep South for making the federal regulation of commerce a mere majority vote in Congress rather than a supermajority of two-thirds. As with the Northwest Ordinance, both sides could declare victory.
At the various state ratifying conventions, pro-ratification delegates in southern states, such as South Carolina, reassured the convention that the Constitution gave no federal power to end slavery, whereas, in northern states such as Pennsylvania, delegates were assured that eventual emancipation similar to the Pennsylvania gradual emancipation plan was inevitable for the entire Union and that “Congress would never allow slaves in any of the new states.”
Over the subsequent decades, battle lines were drawn as to whether new states that joined the Union would be slave states or free states -- the seeds of the Civil War were planted at the very beginning of the nation.
When reformers today speak of the abolition of slavery, the achievement of women’s suffrage and advances in civil and voting rights as “course corrections” on the inevitable road of American progress, I cringe. I think this is a dangerous denial of American history and leaves us vulnerable to continue the same profoundly consequential mistakes of the past.
We must go beyond a superficial reading and look essentially at ways to include ordinary people of all communities in the process of reforming America.
The consequences of closed party politics that prevent full voter participation, open dialogue, and debate can also be seen in the anti-democratic actions, secrecy, and lies that for decades characterized American foreign policy in Latin America, and in countries such as Vietnam.
Historian Paul Ortiz in his book An African American and Latinx History of the United States warns against the practice of whitewashing American history and those historians who "shrouded the country's history in a veil of innocence and exceptionalism, which has undermined the nation's ability to reform itself to this day." Indeed the American "veil of innocence and exceptionalism" hides the struggles, grit, sacrifice, and hard-fought battles that many Americans engaged in despite bitter defeats.
One of the people who best embodies that humble yet transcendent determination is the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. King’s life and work remain relevant today. One of his powerful speeches was "Beyond Vietnam," which he gave at Riverside Baptist Church in Harlem exactly one year before the day on which he was assassinated.
He described the compelling moral reasons that led him to speak out against the Vietnam War, the history of the Vietnamese people’s long struggle for independence and land reform and the destructive and immoral role the United States was playing in Vietnam. He then outlined five concrete actions the U.S. government –“should do immediately”–including to “Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam…”
After sustained applause for what would have, even at that point, been considered a historic speech he went on speaking to all who wish to fundamentally reform America.
“Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing. The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing "clergy and layman concerned committees for the next generation….We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy...In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution.”
After discussing United States military actions in Venezuela, Guatemala, Cambodia and Peru, Dr. King repeats a statement that John F. Kennedy made, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Dr. King’s life was dedicated to making peaceful revolution possible. He fought for civil and voting rights as powerful tools of nonviolent revolution. I believe if he were alive today he would steadfastly support the young people of Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Florida and call for an end to the violence, but he would not stop there. He would go on to delineate the features of American society that make violence inevitable. As someone who loved our country, he would question why the United States leads the world in school violence, mass incarceration, and inequality.
Our partisan government does not reflect the will of the American people and is alienated from their lives and humanity. We must overcome this division. Full and equal voting rights for all, opening the primaries to all voters including independents, and the ability of the American people to reform and re-structure the political process is what makes peaceful revolution possible.
This year (April 4) is the fifty year anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King.
We ought to examine the violence in our country, and the mass shootings at schools beyond the two-party framework which dominates the conversation and blocks the development of the American people. Why does the response to this horrific violence turn into debates over gun control that quickly enforce the two-party framework of Democrat versus Republican? The dominance of political parties has steadily eroded the capacity for dialogue. We need to overcome the partisan divide in favor of listening and deliberating together.
In 1968, less than six weeks before he would be assassinated, Dr. King called the recently released Kerner Commission Report on urban violence a “physicians warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” Though President Johnson appointed the Commission, he ignored their recommendations because he feared the report would hurt the Democratic Party’s prospects for winning the next election. The Commission's report went beyond party politics and included a call for "...a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American, it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will."
Let us work with the fierce urgency of now for people in communities across this country to exercise their capacity to create that new will, for such is the promise of American democracy.