11/10/2011 10:50 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2012

The Battles Have Changed, but the Fight Remains the Same

Recently, our nation witnessed two events whose origins are widely separated in time, but nonetheless share relevance today: the long overdue dedication of the national memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the nationwide protests of the "Occupy" movement. We met to discuss both of the movements at the "We Marched With Martin" commemoration after the memorial dedication organized by the Drum Major Institute, the think tank established to help Dr. King in 1961. We compared the Civil Rights movement with what we see happening today in the streets of our country, and in the corridors of power, and what lesson today's Americans might draw from the events we witnessed a half-century ago, we found the comparison enlightening.

Our country has traversed many different grounds on civil justice beginning with slavery and the Reconstruction. It followed on with the loss of the right to vote and the Constitutional rights given to citizens in the post-Civil war era. The interesting thing to note is that since that time we began to hear the term social justice. If you follow Dr. King, you will see that he was talking about more than just the right to vote, own property, or to have the full citizenship rights. He was talking about much more but because the issue was so controversial at that time, he is largely remembered for leading minorities and all Americans out of that wilderness into a place where we have a fair measure of social justice of which we can be proud.

Similar to the "Occupy" movement today, there was a general feeling in the Civil Rights movement that there were few the movement felt it could trust. They didn't want someone monopolizing the leadership, using it for their own purposes, using it to promote their own ego, or co-opting it for the very power-structure and institutionalized unfairness that they opposed. The Civil Rights movement then, like Occupy, lacked -- and was criticized for lacking -- clear policies, strategies, or leadership. The movement had to undergo a rough growth process of discussing issues, defining a coherent purpose, debating achievable solutions, and eventually, the core concerns, strategies, agendas, and leaders would emerge.

Martin Luther King was a man who possessed unique gifts, the most important being his ability to earn the trust of those who listened to him. Franklin Delano Roosevelt also could do this, they gave the people a belief that their leadership could be trusted, and that with leadership, we could come together and accomplish anything. Trust is the crucial ingredient of a successful movement, but it is also the essential element of a successful society and a viable economy. And now, 50 years after Dr. King, we can clearly see the wisdom of what he preached, that the rich should not continue getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Many believe that our economic system is based on money, but it is not; trust plays an even more fundamental role. People need to have confidence in each other in order to comfortably enter into contracts, to trade, lend, and invest.

What has frustrated Americans, and is motivating so many to take to the streets today, is that the trust of our complex society and economy has been breached significantly. Those institutions in which we have placed trust -- those banks who channel trillions of dollars through our financial system's arteries every day -- put the entire global economy at risk by placing risky bets with other people's money, and then turned to our political leaders and asked for trillions of dollars to bail them out. When ordinary Americans across the country are losing their homes, their businesses, and their jobs ask these same banks to lend them money to help stay afloat, they are often ignored in a shabby fashion. Now, Americans are taking to the streets demanding that their elected officials listen and that beneficiaries of the financial system play fair. Again they feel ignored and view the system more interested in the supplications of those who finance campaigns. Where has the trust gone? It is hard to understand why so many on Wall Street and in Washington believe they don't need to earn the people's trust. Do they not understand that without trust all our institutions will fall?

America must return to the vision of Dr. King, recognizing that our economic, political, and social systems are inter-dependent, that our civil, political, and economic rights along with a sense of justice are crucial ingredients in a fair and functioning society. We ultimately cannot prosper alone. Either we all prosper together, or we do not prosper at all. We restore our tattered economic confidence by restoring social trust and political responsibility. If our leaders in Washington and on Wall Street do not soon hear the call for justice soon, the crowds in the streets will grow and they will overcome.