Last August, right-wing television host Glenn Beck made a bizarre attempt to hijack the spirit of Martin Luther King’s 1963 Freedom March with his own manipulative March on Washington.
Millions of Americans wrung their hands in despair as Beck and his colleagues from Fox News and the Tea Party stood on what was deemed sacred ground and dominated the political discourse, while our own leaders failed to respond to the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression or to hold Wall Street accountable for causing it.
Then last fall, the Occupy Wall Street movement arrived.
Although the media tried to ignore them and then proceeded to belittle them, Occupiers tapped into a deep-seated longing, capturing the public imagination with their 21st century take on King’s message: overcome despair, shame and division; organize and dare to imagine; and fight nonviolently for a better society for everyone.
We don’t need a séance to know that for Martin Luther King, the notion that our government would dare to characterize the economy as “in recovery” while black unemployment remains nearly twice the national average would be an outrage, not a footnote.
Unlike the Tea Party, Occupy has avoided electoral politics, preferring to focus, as King did, on empowering the powerless through direct action on the streets. And while some have criticized Occupy for not delivering a more focused message, the Occupiers have clearly picked up the spiritual aspect of King’s call to action, posing profound questions about the kind of society we have become and what kind of society we want to be.
Occupy’s debt to King's non-violence is direct: In Los Angeles, activists are integrating techniques developed in the antinuclear and anti-globalization movements with the techniques taught at free monthly classes with the Reverend James Lawson, one of the men who guided King and taught him about Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence strategy.
During the last year of King’s life, he expanded the focus of his actions and goals beyond African-American civil rights to building an all-encompassing movement to challenge U.S. militarism and poverty. His last appearance in Memphis was in support of a strike by sanitation workers, opening his arms wide to embrace the cause of what Occupy has forever branded “the 99 percent.”
Beck’s travesty in Washington hit rock bottom for those of us who have been observing and decrying a system that seems designed to benefit those whose values preclude equality and fairness. The assault on the middle class in our country has been brutal. There was—during those dark August days—no loud voice, outside the rarified world of blogs and op-ed pages, crying out in moral outrage.
In September, a small band set up camp in Zuccotti Square. Since that time, the Occupy Wall Street movement has ignited those cries, on the streets and from a growing number of pulpits nationwide.
These are the spirits that endure and the ties that bind.
For me and for many others, embracing the Occupy movement posed a challenge. As a long-time journalist, I’ve had to find a new kind of voice. Like so many friends and colleagues who had lost faith that we would ever be heard, I’ve had to overcome fear and cynicism, learn to act more boldly, engage more creatively.
The memory of the Reverend Martin Luther King reminds us that whatever our obstacles, we need to link arms and learn to put one foot in front of the other, keeping our eyes on the prize, a prize that belongs to all of us.