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Leo W. Gerard Headshot

Occupy: Resurrecting Rev. King's Final Dream

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In public squares across the country, Occupy protesters honor Rev. Martin Luther King's memory on this holiday devoted to him. Their tribute is more meaningful and enduring than the granite monument that President Obama dedicated to Rev. King in Washington, D.C. last year.

That's because the Occupiers are pressing for a cause -- economic justice -- that Rev. King had embraced in the months before his assassination in 1968. And they're pursuing it with the technique he advocated - nonviolent protest.

Rev. King's final crusade, his Poor People's Campaign, and the Occupiers' championing the nation's 99 percent are remarkable in their similarities. It's tragic that in the 44 years since Rev. King launched his campaign for an economic Bill of Rights that the nation's poor and middle class have lurched backward instead of forward. It's hopeful, however, that a whole new generation of idealists has taken up the dream of economic justice.

In the year before Rev. King was gunned down, he persuaded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to join him in a movement devoted to securing for all citizens the basic needs that would enable them to pursue the American Dream, to pursue happiness. He believed every able-bodied person should have access to a job with a living wage. And he believed every American should have decent housing and affordable health care. Without economic security, he said, no man is free.

Rev. King's dream has its roots in the progressive movement, containing key elements of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt's proposed Economic Bill of Rights. Roosevelt, the beloved president who gave the country Social Security, pushed the Economic Bill of Rights in the waning days of the war.

Roosevelt said the original Bill of Rights had made the country great, but its political entitlements had proved inadequate to assure Americans equal opportunity to pursue happiness. The president who had pulled the country out of the Great Depression, the man born to great wealth, warned:

"People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made."

So he advocated a second Bill of Rights "under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all -- regardless of station, race or creed."

Among the rights Roosevelt proposed were a sustaining job, a decent home and adequate medical care.

Just 24 years later, Rev. King took up that cause for all people -- regardless of station, race or creed. He was murdered before completing plans for a march on Washington. But just weeks after his death, his widow and fellow Southern Christian Leadership Conference ministers, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, led protesters into the capital city on May 12, 1968.

They went to federal offices seeking anti-poverty legislation. Then they established a shantytown called Resurrection City. Its huts and tents extended the length of the reflecting pool. As many as 1,800 people camped there through virtually continuous rain. The bad weather, the mud, the lingering trauma from Rev. King's assassination and the murder of Robert Kennedy on June 5, 1968, just a few weeks into the encampment, depressed the protesters.

In a recording from those difficult days, Rev. Jackson can be heard attempting to rally the demonstrators with the chant:

"I am. Somebody. I am. God's Child. I may not have a job, but I am somebody."

The crowd repeated Rev. Jackson's words, just like the "human microphone" used by the Occupiers today.

After six weeks, 1,000 park police surrounded Resurrection City, routed the remaining protesters with tear gas and razed the structures. This is prescient of the fate of too many Occupy encampments, from the original in New York's Zuccotti Park to its twin across the country in Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza.

After destruction of the shantytown in 1968, Rev. Jackson said:

"Resurrection City cannot be seen as a mud hole in Washington, but it is rather an idea unleashed in history. The idea has taken root and is growing across the country."

After the Occupy Wall Street evictions, protesters said the same:

"You can't evict an idea whose time has come."

Still, the Resurrection City protesters didn't get what they came for. They had sought major legislation to give opportunity to America's poor. At that time, 13 percent of the nation's population -- 25 million people -- lived in poverty.

Today, it's worse; nearly twice as many Americans -- 46.2 million -- live in poverty. The rate is worse as well -- 15.1 percent.

In addition, in the past decade the gap between rich and poor widened. In the past five years since the great recession began, banks evicted record numbers of families from their homes. And Republicans are threatening to repeal health care reform, the one achievement bringing the nation closer to an economic Bill of Rights.

No wonder protesters resurrected Resurrection City.

What Rev. King preached and what many Occupiers seem to believe is that paramount in a republic is job creation, not wealth creation. The duty of government is not to ensure that the rich get richer but to establish equal opportunity for individuals to achieve freedom, independence and happiness.

Without a job -- without adequate income -- freedom, independence and happiness are impossible.

"This is America's opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will."

Those are Rev. King's words. The Occupiers have shown they have the will to achieve his dream.