Dr. King’s Undelivered Sermon & The 7 Deadly Sins of American Democracy
Two months ago, I gave the speech above at the inaugural “Unrig the System Summit” in New Orleans (“a convening of the brightest minds from the right and left to fix American politics” organized by Represent.Us). This is the expanded version (with references and an update or two)…
I attended Morehouse College, the alma mater of notable freedom fighters like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Julian Bond. So, naturally, I took a deep dive in Civil Rights Movement history and ecology.
I went on to pickup Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and I was arrested by the fact that another racial caste system had arisen out of the ashes of the last one that Dr. King and others fought so hard to dismantle.
So I became a criminal justice advocate and ultimately the youngest member and spokesperson of the 200-member #EndMassIncarceration coalition that pushed the Obama administration to do all in its power to end the war on drugs and the mass incarceration that it spawned.
After a few historic successes on that front, I saw Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig’s TED talk on the corrupting influence of big money in politics, and it didn’t take me long to see that — with our congress-members spending upwards of 50% of their time in office fundraising for re-election and, in so doing, kowtowing to the tiniest slice of the 1% who can afford to fund their campaigns — no matter how many advances we’d make locally and (then) through the executive branch, we’d continue to face diminishing returns due to the big money interests that block the necessary legislative reforms that most Americans actually support.
This wasn’t just the case for criminal justice reform, but it remains true for issues across the gamut of public interest: gun control, a living wage, debt-free college education, Medicare for all, support for DACA, immigration reform and the list goes on.
This is why I joined Democracy Spring two years ago. History taught us that — from the founding revolution to abolition, women’s suffrage to the labor, farm workers, and civil rights movements — no major democratic struggle in the American story had been won without the weapon that Dr. King called the “sword that heals,” nonviolent direct action. And we believe that fixing our democracy is the Goliath that David’s army of egalitarians must focus its slingshot on if we are all to advance in earnest (otherwise, we will continue to face diminishing returns on every other front).
So, we organized the largest act of American civil disobedience this century in April 2016 demanding legislation to end voter suppression and the corrupting influence of big money in politics. And we were winning — nearly 100 members of congress responded to our protests by signing on to the legislation we endorsed, Democratic Senate leaders introduced a comprehensive package of democracy reforms a month later, Democratic House leaders followed suit with the release of its “By the People” legislative package ahead of the DNC, and just 48 hours later, the Democratic Presidential Nominee went a step further than our demand that she champion these pro-democracy reforms within the first 100 days of her administration by pledging to act on them within the first 30 days — until the November 2016 Presidential Election underscored just how broken our democracy really is.
That election was not just an indictment of voter suppression (as we’ve come to understand it) and big money in politics, but it was an indictment of what I’ve come to call “The 7 Deadly Sins of American Democracy”:
1. Voter Suppression: where, despite internationally low voter turnout amongst democracies, 99 bills were introduced in 31 states last year alone to restrict access to registration and voting (not to mention the Trump administration’s latest suppression scheme via the Census).
2. Voter Erasure: the recent phenomenon where an estimated 1.1 million mostly black and brown voters were purged from the rolls via Kris Kobach’s insidious Interstate Crosscheck scheme, tipping the scales in 2016, according to award-winning investigative journalist Greg Palast’s new documentary, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (it continues to be a travesty that this story has yet to really break through public consciousness — fortunately, prominent academic studies and lawsuits are helping to fill that void).
3. Felon Disenfranchisement: where millions who have already served their time are still barred from the right to vote.
4. The Corrupting Influence of Big Money in Politics: where, as aforementioned, our elected officials spend the lion’s share of their time fundraising and catering to wealthy donors and corporations at the expense of their constituents and the public interest.
5. Gerrymandering: the cowardly practice of politicians choosing their voters.
6. Vulnerable Voting Systems & Trojan Media: not just the Russian tampering on these two registers (local voting systems and social media), but also the uncounted “spoiled” ballots, tens of thousands in Michigan alone, that Greg Palast also uncovers.
7. The Electoral College: if we are to finally fix our democracy, this nation must finally face the fact that the Electoral College is a vestige of our nation’s original sin of slavery (consider the “Three-Fifths Compromise”; not to mention the constitutional principle of “1 person, 1 vote” which it violates).
Before Dr. King was assassinated, he was preparing to preach a sermon 50 years ago today entitled “Why America May Go to Hell.” But that sermon is more applicable today. Not because of these 7 Deadly Sins alone, but because these sins — aided and abetted by the age-old race-exploiting trick of Divide & Conquer politics that benefits the few at the expense of the many — are literally preventing us from addressing the colorblind emergency that the existential threats of climate change and nuclear proliferation pose to the survival of the human race (not to mention the common challenges like mass incarceration or economic inequality).
Again, Dr. King wasn’t able to preach that sermon, but he left us some clues. He said “either we will learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”
He also said “Now more than ever before, America is challenged to realize its dream, for the shape of the world today does not permit our nation the luxury of an anemic democracy. And the price that America must pay for the continued oppression of the [African-American] and other minority groups is the price of its own destruction. For the hour is late. And the clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now before it is too late.”
And in view of the tipping point at which we now stand with respect to (1) the doomsday clock that atomic scientists say is now closer to the midnight end of humanity than it has been since the height of the Cold War in 1953, and (2) the evaporating timeline climate scientists say we have to reverse the tide of climate change THIS century, Dr. King’s prophetic admonition is more prescient today than ever before. Yes, in a real and perhaps apocalyptic sense, America may go to Hell.
(And of course this is to say nothing of the recent indictments on our broken democracy from The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index that we’re no longer a “full democracy,” from Freedom House that “the United States experienced its sharpest one-year drop since [they] began doing the survey more than 40 years ago,” from the Electoral Integrity Project that “U.S. elections rank last among all Western democracies,” and from the Economic Policy Institute that half a century of civil rights gains have stalled or reversed.)
But we still have a fighting chance. We must work with “the fierce urgency of now” to redeem this nation of those 7 deadly sins (and, I might add, the abominations of racialized division, the war economy, and the neo-slavery of debt bondage and poverty — in the land of plenty — on which those 7 deadly sins are predicated). We do this not just by mounting legal challenges in court (as much as we appreciate the ACLU, NAACP, League of Women Voters, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Demos, et al for this critical work), but by also championing pro-democracy candidates, local laws and ballot initiatives that advance things like Vote at Home (otherwise known as Vote by Mail) and/or Automatic Voter Registration and Same Day Registration, Ranked Choice Voting (we’re already behind the Oscars on this), Felon Re-Enfranchisement, Public Financing of Elections, Independent Redistricting Commissions, the National Interstate Popular Vote Compact, and ending mass voter purges (Kobach and Husted style) that function as an ethnic cleansing of the voter rolls.
However, we can’t do this without sustained nonviolent direct action. In fact, had we relied solely on legal strategy during the Civil Rights Movement, we would’ve never won the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. Fortunately, there are hopeful signs: from the Women’s March to the thousands who have flooded the streets weekend after weekend since to reject the hate that has hijacked our national current, from the increased citizen engagement at the ballot box (especially around the pro-democracy movement) to the unprecedented number of women and people of color now running for office (buoyed by the impending rise of millennials to America’s largest voting bloc), from the student walkouts for gun control across the nation post-Parkland to the recent teacher walkouts. Perhaps most promising, though, is the budding Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival slated for next month.
This campaign (the resurrection of a dream that was killed shortly after its revolutionary dreamer 50 years ago) is not just promising because of its sustained, escalating nonviolent direct action over 40 days in about 30 states across the country, but also because of its laser focus on the link between political and socio-economic (and environmental) disenfranchisement! Indeed, the campaign has already commissioned a report showing that the states that have the most voter suppression are the same states with the highest rates of poverty, no or lowest minimum wage, and the lowest rates of healthcare coverage. (No wonder why, when lamenting over the age-old race-exploiting trick of Divide & Conquer politics that came to define the “Southern Strategy,” President Lyndon Johnson quipped “If you can convince the lowest white man that he’s better than the best [black] man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.”)
And I’ve got to say this for the record: there’s this misconception that civil disobedience is just a leftist tool. But Dr. King didn’t see it that way, and neither did Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, when he sent the money to bail out the children who put their bodies on the line during the Birmingham campaign in the sixties, according to Clarence B. Jones’ Behind the Dream.
Nonviolent direct action is not the liberal or conservative thing to do, it is the right thing to do in the face of unequal and unjust laws. And those 7 Deadly Sins fit the bill.
The fact of the matter is that this is a decisive moment in the American story and a new chapter is being written. This hour calls for real patriots who employ creative synergy and sacrifice. Real patriots who see the urgency of collaboration and who put their careers and bodies on the line to get into what John Lewis calls “good trouble.”
This is why I’ve decided to lean-in to the unanimous recommendation and vote of Democracy Spring’s multi-racial, millennial-led National Coordinating Committee this past week, and completely surrender to that John Lewis notion of “The Spirit of History”:
“Others might call it Fate. Or Destiny. Or a Guiding Hand. Whatever it is called, I came to believe that this force is on the side of what is good, of what is right and just. It is the essence of the moral force of the universe, and at certain points in life, in the flow of human existence and circumstances, this force, this spirit, finds you or selects you, it chases you down, and you have no choice; you must allow yourself to be used, to be guided by this force and to carry out what must be done. To me, that concept of surrender, of giving yourself over to something inexorable, something so much larger than yourself, is the basis of what we call faith. And it is the first and most crucial step toward opening yourself to the Spirit of History.
“This opening of the self, this alignment with Fate, has nothing to do with ego or self-gratification. On the contrary, it’s an absolutely selfless thing. If the self is involved, the process is interrupted. Something is in the way. The self, even a sense of the self, must be totally removed in order to allow this spirit in. It is a process of giving over one’s very being to whatever role history chooses for you.”
And my first order of business as the newly elected Interim Mission Director (with the aim of working in short order to fill out a leaderful 3-person Mission Council of equals) of Democracy Spring is to advance our partnership with Rev. Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign, and marshal our national resources and nonviolent army behind this effort to ensure that the Poor People’s Campaign breaks the righteous record we set for American civil disobedience in the Spring of 2016.
There’s a new generation rising. The Revolution Generation, if you will. The word “revolution” tracing its etymology to the Latin word “revolution” or “revolvere” meaning “roll back” or “turn around.” And, given how far off the rails of public interest our public policy is today, a “turn around” is just the thing we need. So with our North Star being the Declaration of Independence, the most American of documents, we charge forward resolutely. However, we don’t just draw our inspiration from the most iconic sentence of that document, we also draw it from the sentence that follows:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
The history of the future — a more secure and happy future — is being written today. Which side are you on?
If we are completely honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that there’s been a long Winter in America. But Spring is coming…
Renaldo Michael Pearson is the newly elected Interim Mission Director of Democracy Spring. He resides in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he is the Social Engineer-in-Residence at Harvard University’s Winthrop House.