How are you marking today’s commemoration of the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Some are volunteering, many joining voting-rights actions, including a D.C. march for voting rights led by Dr. King’s family. The clip above, from when Dr. King launched the first Poor People’s Campaign, might explain some of why socialists are so drawn to King’s words, and why DSA is a partner in the newer PPC, founded by Rev. William Barber. Today is also a day to remember Bayard Rustin, a Quaker and democratic socialist who introduced nonviolent tactics to the civil rights movement and organized the March on Washington.
As Rustin’s biographer, John D’Emilio, told DSA’s Religious Socialism podcast last year, Rustin organized protests throughout his life, though he argued after Lyndon B. Johnson’s election that the left needed to move “from protest to politics” and engage directly with the political system, something still under debate in the 21st century. D’Emilio’s book on Rustin, Lost Prophet, ably describes that debate and how Rustin, an openly gay man since the 1940s, challenged the civil rights movement at all levels. So does the documentary Brother Outsider, which might pass for your MLK-movie viewing and contains lots of questions worth discussing with your chapter.
Of course, our activism isn’t confined to one day or week or month. But today we can end with the words of our iconic democratic socialist:
“And one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty 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…” – Speech to Southern Christian Leadership Conference Atlanta, Georgia, August 16, 1967.