President Obama stated in the immediate aftermath of the non-indictment of the New York City police officer who administered the chokehold that killed Eric Garner that the decision "speaks to larger issues" related to the mistrust of law enforcement in minority communities. I contend that the larger issues that have energized and mobilized protesters across the country to levels unforeseen in the past decade warrant legislative action that goes beyond the conduct of police departments. Like the movement for civil rights that preceded the passage of the Great Society legislation of the 1960s, there is a need for larger scale reforms to improve the overall well-being of our society. There is a need for a New Great Society.
The demonstrations and events of 1963 such as the Birmingham campaign and the March on Washington dramatized problems of discrimination that had long existed but had not yet gained enough national pressure for reform. The movement's heightened dramatization of the problem created a climate for the opening of a policy window that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also paved the way for the launching of the War on Poverty in 1964 with its centerpiece being the Economic Opportunity Act that brought programs such as Job Corps, Upward Bound, Head Start and the Model Cities Program. The climate and scope produced by the movement were broad enough that several major pieces of legislation were pushed through in 1965 including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Voting Rights Act, Higher Education Act and Medicare.
The creation of the original "Great Society" was no doubt aided by President Lyndon B. Johnson's 68 seat majority in the Senate. This political advantage does not exist today at the national level but it does in some state and local governments. Today's problems are glaring but if the movement sparked in recent weeks is sustained and broadened then an opportunity can be created for multiple issues to be pushed onto the agenda for a New Great Society that would restore the Voting Rights Act, pass a new jobs and infrastructure bill, increase funding at every level of education and reform the criminal justice system.
A new Great Society can only be manifested if multiple bills at multiple levels of government are connected to a movement that pushes for and demands change. The elevation of the problem in 1963 by the civil rights movement and political majority on 1964 was accompanied by a strong stream of policies coming from the Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives led by Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. This committee reported 49 pieces of legislation to Congress and served as a great complement to the activism of the people protesting in the streets.
Our current stream of policies need to be elevated and expanded. Our legislators must legislate. These policy prescriptions can be attached to the demands of protesters along with a push to appropriately implement laws that are already on the books. Policy is written and passed in legislative bodies but it is ultimately delivered on the street. The Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 was not really implemented for the most part in southern states until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed with the Title VI provision (also known as the Powell amendment) that required that federal funds be withheld from any jurisdiction that practiced segregation.
This moment in history can certainly be utilized to move forward needed reforms in the criminal justice system that pertain to the cases in Ferguson and Staten Island like limiting of the secrecy of grand juries, requiring that impartial prosecutors and legal investigators handle cases of police related violence and making sure that the force that police officers apply is proportional to the potential offense. These and other issues related to the criminal justice system should be rightly put on the agenda but it is important in this critical moment to expand the demands and policy prescriptions to more comprehensive reforms that go beyond individual cases or scenarios.
This is why the sustained demonstrations across the country and upcoming march on December 13 in Washington, D.C. are so important. These organizing efforts are based on the notion that we can come together to gain more control over our life conditions and that ordinary people have immense power to set their own goals and take collective action to help perfect the union. This can only be accomplished through an organized movement that generates sustained pressure for social justice, economic equity, educational access and a better way of life. The time has come for a New Great Society in the United States of America.
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Education for a Better America and an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration and Political Science at Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University and Lynn University.