Does Occupy movement continue Martin Luther King's push for social justice?

The Sacramento BeeJanuary 16, 2012 

"Yes, it will be a Poor People's Campaign. … This is America's opportunity to help bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots … we now have the techniques and resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s call to action – spoken four days before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – resonates powerfully in the hearts and minds of many in the 99 percent.

More than 20,000 are expected to join Sacramento's 31st annual Martin Luther King Jr. march today, including 1,000 under the banner of Occupy Sacramento.

"King would say, 'Please finish what I started.' That's what we're doing," said Sean Laney, head of Occupy Sacramento's education committee.

Not since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s have so many Americans been galvanized in the fight for economic equality.

The Occupy movement arguably has drawn even greater numbers, thanks to social media and the more than 46 million Americans living below the poverty line – the most ever in U.S. history.

Since the first Occupy Wall Street protest in New York's Zuccotti Park last September, "all of a sudden (the protests) ended up being in over 1,000 places, and upwards of 1 million people have participated," Laney said. "At least one in 10 American adults have either gone to check it out, been active online or at least had discussions about it."

There's plenty of common ground between the civil rights movement of 1954-68 and Occupy – including nonviolent civil disobedience and calls for jobs, health care and redistribution of wealth.

But observers say Occupy still has much to learn from King.

The first lesson: Identify and articulate achievable goals and rack up some wins, said Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University.

In 1968, King called for $30 billion a year to build 500,000 affordable housing units and guarantee every American a job and/or an income "pegged to the median income of society, not the lowest levels."

That's in line with Occupy's goal "to rectify this vast widening gap between rich and poor," Carson said. Occupy could press for a steep inheritance tax, since a large portion of the wealth of the richest 1 percent has been passed on, he said.

"The gulf is getting harder and harder to bridge" because of the deterioration of public schools and the lack of access to health care, said Carson, the son of a security guard and seamstress who worked his way through UCLA in the '60s, when tuition was $99 a semester.

Carson was one of 250,000 Americans who joined King's 1963 March on Washington where specific goals and solutions were addressed. By contrast, the Occupy Oakland protests Carson attended seem like a blur to him: "It was the good opening phase of a movement, but it wasn't a movement. We will see whether it grows or peters out."

How do you go from an expression of generalized discontent to effecting change?

"Can Occupy sway elections to the point where the movement's so strong it's irrelevant who wins?" Carson asked.

It takes time for protest movements to congeal around key issues, said Sam Starks, director of Sacramento's annual King celebration. "I'd strongly advise Occupy to create a 10-point plan."

King's marches gained steam from nightly TV images of African American boys and girls being sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs. His rich voice, charisma and ability to inspire "transformed small movements into big movements," Starks said.

But one of King's most enduring lessons – paid for with his life – is that a true movement for change depends on values and ideas, not personalities, Starks said.

The actions of individuals doing what they think is right are often the most powerful change agents, Carson added. "I don't think we wait for leaders to tell us what to do. King didn't tell seamstress Rosa Parks what to do when she refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, or the students sitting at the lunch counters – they figured it out for themselves."

More than 100 people have been arrested at Occupy Sacramento events, said Laney, who also was arrested at Occupy Oakland.

Occupy has yet to focus on specific targets, other than public funding of political campaigns so that corporations and the rich can't buy elections, Laney said. "But these are a group of people who didn't know each other four months ago and we're making some measurable progress."

"Some people just like to be angry and shout about it," he said. "You can't build a long-term movement without some anger, but you also need some critical thinking. Let's start identifying solutions that are pragmatic, that we can do now."

To read more, visit www.sacbee.com.

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