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Single-Issue Politics

Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered as he prepared to speak in support of a strike by garbage collectors. Having built a movement, a following and a worldwide reputation as a religiously driven campaigner for rights for the racially oppressed, he had begun to expand his Christian message to include the rights of the economically oppressed.

Dr. King had seen the promised land. He knew that it was here, that it was within reach. And the same religious impulse that drove him to lead oppressed black people toward it also drove him to lead other oppressed people toward it. So he backed the striking garbage collectors. And he turned against the colonial war in Vietnam.

It may be hubris for a privileged white man to conclude that Dr. King would have been disheartened by our current balkanized politics, racial definitions and corporatized churches. But I do.

Dr. King’s vision was for a religion, a politics, an economics of inclusion. It may be hubris for a privileged white man to conclude that Dr. King would have been disheartened by our current balkanized politics, racial definitions and corporatized churches. But I do. When Dr. King was alive, Hispanics and most Jews were considered to be “whites”. With the election of John F. Kennedy, a majority of voters had overcome the long-standing prejudice that Catholics were not “christian”.

But defining groups and then pitting them against each other is profitable. It is also an easy sell, because people seem to be congenitally tribal, seeking identity and ‘safety’ with familiars. Telling people that they, and their group, are special is a surefire way to attract donations and political support. Nixon’s “Southern strategy” may be the clearest example of this in our nation’s history – turning the Republican Party from supporting civil rights to the racism of Southern Democrats and then toward its current incarnation as stridently racist, misogynist and xenophobic.

Once a group has been identified and targeted, it is easy to pit them against other groups, equally promoted as being “special” or “unique,” by telling them that the other groups seek to compete with them for “specialness” or the rights, economic and political, that come with being special. Dr. King grew up in a world of such division, in which group definitions and rankings were enforced by law, and by extra-legal violence protected by law. He saw and clearly understood the human costs that were the consequence, and the business profits that were the cause, of such definitions and divisions.

It was education, both formal and on-the-street, that taught Dr. King. He learned at home and in church that daily oppression was morally wrong. And he learned from men who had returned from overseas, after fighting in WW-II that, whatever local law and businessmen said, it didn’t have to be that way, and wasn’t that way in the rest of the world. And he learned from union organizers and workers (many of them, tragically, strident racists) that change for the better was possible.

As his youthful faith was given structure and depth in a school of theology, Dr. King learned that change for the better was not only possible, but inevitable. But the messages of Jesus, which he took to heart, included the commandment that change was the responsibility of the believer – that change would not come without effort and commitment. President Obama was only partially right – the reality is not Hope and Change, but Hope, Struggle and Change.

That truth cuts both ways. Change comes through commitment and effort. And so it was that the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements also taught business leaders that change was necessary for their purposes. Thus, starting in the1960s, concerted efforts started to debase schooling, particularly public schooling, and to wrest control of Christian churches from local parishes and non-profit central organizations which had championed progress.

Corporations easily keep focused on their goals. They just ask accountants what activities generate the most profit. People wanting to improve society have much more difficult analyses to handle. Dr. King’s analysis taught him that his commitment to social justice meant he had to work on economic justice, not only racial justice, and that relying on earlier work done by racist white unions could benefit those against whom the unions discriminated.

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In contrast, look at the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Many people felt that they had to support Thomas’ nomination because he was black. They had to ignore women’s complaints about his misogynistic conduct because he would represent black interests on the Court. As his record has shown, he has consistently opposed racial civil rights as well as economic justice since being seated. His misogyny remains as constant as ever. Supporting him on a single issue has injured some who supported him, as he has voted to end black voting rights, all workers’ economic rights, and equal rights for women.

The examples of Dr. King and Clarence Thomas should educate progressives everywhere. (WHY do we, once again, need black people to teach the rest of us?) Single-issue politics are not progressive. Clarence Thomas was promoted on the single issue of his race, with active relegation of his policy beliefs to irrelevance. In contrast, Al Franken, one of the senate’s most progressive voices, who had publicly acknowledged his past failings, and his need and willingness to learn, was driven out of the Senate over a single issue, opening the door for a more conservative voice to take his place.

Dr. King was not focused on the single issue of civil rights for oppressed black people. Rather he fought, and died, for civil rights for ALL people. He saw his struggle, building on the fight against de jure segregation, as including labor rights, economic rights, the rights of black, Hispanic and white soldiers to not fight colonial wars, and the rights of Asians to self-rule without American direction.

Dr. King remains an icon. Others who made important contributions have been obscured by public reaction to single issues. Bayard Rustin gave his life to organizing for civil rights. He was chief organizer of the 1963 march at which Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. But Rustin was gay, at a time when sexual orientation was a single issue that outweighed any other consideration. So Rustin was pushed into the background, and never received broad public recognition for his role.

The Black Panthers similarly suffered from single issue focuses. Although the Panthers ran educational and meal programs to help lift children out of oppressive conditions, they were targeted in the media for the single issue of their willingness to acknowledge violence as a tool to respond to violence against black communities. That single issue disagreement with Dr. King’s movement was parlayed by corporate press and politicians into negative public opinion.

But it wasn’t only single issue white response to the Black Panthers that hurt them. The corporate press and politicians led by J. Edgar Hoover constantly attacked all civil rights leaders and organizations, violent and non-violent, without destroying them. The Panthers’ demise came, as much as from anything else, their own internal disputes over focus and single-issue squabbles. It was easier to fight among themselves than to fight the large power system.

Internecine, single-issue fights took the USSR off the rails, as Bolsheviks fought Mensheviks. Pat Robertson’s “christian” campaign to become president was destroyed by the circular firing squad of various “christian” profiteers attacking each other over questions of doctrinal purity. And it looks like much of the turmoil and confusion in the Trump White House is similarly driven by petty squabbles about ideology and personal quests for power and profit.

tom hall

After years of progress towards sexual equality, we are seeing dissention among progressives over the relative importance of single issues. Are LBGTQ rights more important than women’s rights? Are women’s rights more important than economic justice? And the perennial American favorite – if there is any other important right to campaign for, should we focus on it, over civil rights for non-whites?

The ONLY beneficiaries of such questions, short and long term, are those who profit by keeping oppressed groups fighting against each other, instead of against oppression. Progressives who want real progress will find ways to overcome single issue focuses which divide even as they seek to motivate.

Tom Hall

Tom Hall