The thousands of people gathering in lower Manhattan and camping out in other cities across the nation bring to mind the Poor People's Campaign of 1968, when Martin Luther King rallied tens of thousands to erect a tent encampment ("Resurrection City") on the National Mall.
They were demanding jobs and justice. "We are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power," King declared. What was the use of being able to legally sit at a lunch counter, he rhetorically asked, if you couldn't afford the price of a hamburger? But turning his attention from ending Jim Crow to restructuring a system that rewarded the few at the expense of the many was King's undoing. In April of that year he was assassinated, and the tent city sank into a morass of mud and despair.
Will Occupy Wall Street have any greater success in challenging the financial titans who control Amercai's economy? In 1968, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 13% of the American public--25 million people--were living below the poverty line. In 2010, the most recent year for which figures are available, that figure had risen to 46 million people, or over 15% of the population classified as poor, unable to satisfy the basic necessities of food, shelter, clothing and medical care. Since the days of the Poor People's Campaign, most Americans, and to an even greater extent most people of color (who have been hardest hit by the recession) have lost ground.
This should be a sobering thought to the youthful leaders of today's protests. They are trying to achieve what a master organizer and tactician like Dr. King failed in: to fundamentally alter the terms of the financial lottery that determines winners and losers in our society. Judging from history, their struggle will necessarily be a long one, with massive resistance from the entrenched, monied interests who are unlikely to concede anything without a fight.
As abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote of an earlier contest, "This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed the endurance of those whom they oppress."
I am all for the Wall Street Occupiers, who seem bright, articulate, well-informed and to have both logic and fairness on their side. But having all the good arguments, unfortunately, will not determine who continues to reap the spoils of crony capitalism. I hope the Occupiers realize what they are up against.