William E. Spriggs
– This Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary of the March to Freedom down Woodward Avenue in Detroit. The UAW will be there, as they were under the leadership of Walter Reuther, and will re-enact the march where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. first delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech-a speech he drafted at Solidarity House, the home of the UAW. Earlier this month, President Obama met with the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was assassinated 50 years ago and so did not make it to the August March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
In July, the AFL-CIO will host a conference to reflect on those past 50 years. But this summer, in North Carolina, almost 500 Moral Monday protesters have been arrested fighting to stave off legislation designed to roll back major advances in civil rights won in the aftermath of the 1963 marches in Detroit and later in August. So, while this is a summer of civil rights commemoration, it is also a year of active struggle over the same core issues of voting rights, jobs and economic justice.
Our nation is locked in a debate as old as the country’s founding. The proponents of the new nation, and framers of our Constitution, spelled out the issues involved in creating a national identity out of disparate states in the Federalist Papers. The authors of those papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay, were responding to the unwieldy gridlock of factions that were stalling the formation of a United States of America.
Sparked, in part, by Shays’ Rebellion, a protest against taxes and austerity imposed by the state of Massachusetts in the face of a post-Revolutionary War economic downturn, the proposed U.S. Constitution was, in part, directed at a unified position of the 13 states in addressing an American war debt crisis.
Today’s tea party is not really linked to the Boston patriots, but to Shays’ Rebellion and the later Whiskey Rebellion, protests by individuals against resolving the obligations of the broader society to the common good.
Five of the Federalist Papers had a theme of addressing why the Constitution would solve the problems of factions, particularly when groups would work against the rights of some citizens or against the broader public good. It is worth noting how Madison attributed the ultimate source of political factions:
“The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”
Opposition to a United States and to the Federalist Papers came from those who saw the economic interests of a slave South and industrializing North as a divide that could not be united. But there was a different divide in addition to slavery. The point of government in the South was to support the wealth of a few, even if it meant denying people basic liberty; government was solely the servant of the wealthy. The real faction and divide was over the debate of the meaning of government and democracy.
Today, under Republican governors and Republican-held state legislatures, southern states-in particular-and other states are in open rebellion against the intentions of the Voting Rights Act. Seven of the former Confederate states have passed legislation to limit voting rights, and protesters in North Carolina are fighting against those rollbacks.
Those same seven states are refusing to participate in the extension of Medicaid coverage that would enable the Affordable Care Act to close the health insurance gap faced by African Americans. These states are also “right to work” for less, or “right to work,” states, with anti-union laws designed to limit the effectiveness of unions to represent workers with their employers over safety and workplace issues.
So, while Black voting strength was the backbone of President Obama’s victory in 2012, it represents a minority vote in those states. And, as the framing fathers feared, a majority faction has laid claim to those states, infringing on the rights of a minority. But in our modern global world, there really cannot be such states. A map showing poverty in the United States shows that poverty is highly concentrated in these same states. And a map showing the extremes of inequality, by state, shows these are the same states where income inequality is at its worse.
Yet here we are today, an America deeply divided and fractured. If you are poor in America, you are not an American, but a Texan or a Tar Heel. Your access to health care, to quality education, to unemployment benefits all rests on the politics of your state. We are not simply divided in Washington. We are exactly where we were in 1860. We are divided in a vision of the meaning of government and of democracy.
We have a set of states where a majority faction has decided that the role of government is to serve the interest and needs of protecting the incomes of a few at the top. Those states foster little government for the people, but lots of protections for the wealthy. The Constitution was meant to limit the ability of such a faction in taking control of the federal government. But even Madison understood that such factions might control some states, or perhaps many states.
The issue is whether President Obama will respond as President Buchanan did. Buchanan claimed he was not truly indifferent to the extremes of the slave South, but felt he could not take on their intractable position. And while Buchanan appears to have felt that secession was not allowed by the Constitution, clearly he felt powerless to do anything about it. It took President Lincoln to understand that two competing notions of democracy could not stand in the Union. It was Lincoln who decided this could not be a house divided, and to redefine the United States as a “government of the people.”
What will President Obama do with the North Carolina Moral Monday and Witness Wednesday protesters? Will he be like President Lyndon B. Johnson, who took the clues of the civil rights movement to move America forward and insist the federal government must step in and defend the Constitution and democracy? Or will he be like Buchanan and be sympathetic but argue himself into a self-imposed lack of power?
In a global world, we cannot move forward with a nation of poor, starving, poorly educated children, whose parents lack the rights of workers or the power of the vote or the social protection needed in an unstable economy. We cannot be a nation in which government serves the interest of the few while we try to protect democracy in the world. Our government must again see itself as the beacon to the world in defending democracy. And our national leaders must unite us as a nation.
William Spriggs serves as Chief Economist to the AFL-CIO and is a professor in, and former chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University. Bill is also former assistant secretary for the Office of Policy at the United States Department of Labor.