It's Still Time for a Freedom Party
What Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement can teach us about reclaiming the modern Democratic Party
In 1964, civil rights organizers launched the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, signing up tens of thousands of members in an effort to be seated—in place of the official, segregationist state party—at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. The official Mississippi Democratic Party routinely slated candidates in shady back room deals, and had announced it would support Republican Barry Goldwater for president, rather than the party’s own candidate, Lyndon Baines Johnson, whom its leaders believed was a threat to segregation. When official political channels denied their humanity and disregarded their interests, these visionary activists organized a movement to take over the party and redefined what was politically possible. Although the Freedom Party was not successful in unseating the official state delegation, its campaign helped lay the groundwork for the two most important pieces of civil rights legislation in our nation’s history – the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
"It is up to regular Americans to stand up and to reclaim government as a means for collectively solving our biggest problems."
This Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday, Chicago activists are taking inspiration from the Freedom Party’s efforts. Reclaim Chicago, supported by The People’s Lobby and National Nurses United, is drawing a line in the sand and proclaiming that our city can no longer tolerate Democratic leaders who put the interests of corporations and the rich before the interests of the vast majority of Chicagoans. Reclaim Chicago has endorsed a slate of 18 progressives city council candidates in the 2015 municipal election, and activists hope to win several key seats. But regardless of the outcome of any particular race, Reclaim Chicago is committed to building and exercising independent, progressive political power so that we can – over the next several election cycles – reclaim city government as a tool collectively solving our city’s problems and investing in the common good.
We’re living in an age of crises – economic, environmental and political – for which America’s political class has no solutions. Only the super rich have enjoyed an economic recovery, our economy is still almost entirely carbon based and voter turnout and political participation is at an all time low.
In the face of these crises, the American people face a conundrum. On one hand, the GOP actively dismisses the climate crisis, furthers the political crisis to its own advantage by suppressing voter participation and opposing public investment at every turn, and doubles down on the very economic policies that created our economic crisis. On the other hand the Democratic Party offers little to distinguish itself from its far-right counterpart. The trouncing taken by the Democrats in the recent midterm elections was an entirely predictable result for a party that offers no compelling vision for how it will address the economic pain of regular Americans or the crisis of global warming. Fixing these crises will require massive public investment, but today's Democrats, owned by the corporate and Wall Street elite, are incapable of reigning in corporate power and taxing corporations and the rich so that America can afford to make these investments. Instead, they give us austerity with a human face.
Instead of austerity, we need productive investment for the common good; instead of relentless criminalization and mass-incarceration of African American youth, we need an economy that works for everyone and does not exclude or exploit entire communities as one of its essential features; instead of an economy that must destroy the natural environment to reproduce itself, we need a major shift toward an ecologically sustainable, green energy infrastructure; and instead of selling off our public assets to predatory private interests for short-term revenue, we need to expand the public domain to create shared prosperity and provide quality employment to the millions who are currently without it.
The Mississippi Freedom Party organizers knew the segregationist state party could never represent their interests, and we can no longer hold out any hope that today’s Democratic Party will put our interests above the interests of their corporate owners. Today’s Democratic Party makes deals behind closed doors that put corporate profits and the interests of the wealthy before our interests. The Democratic Party has embraced many of the right’s policies, including privatization, corporate tax breaks and corporate subsidies. It’s important to note on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday that although these policies hurt all of us, they hurt African Americans and other people of color the most. These policies steal staggering amounts of wealth from poor and middle class people and put it in the hands of the corporate elite – leaving almost no public money to invest in eliminating America’s racial disparities in income, education, housing quality and health care – or anything else, for that matter. These policies are structurally racist.
If history has only one lesson to teach, it is that in precarious moments like this the elite class is unwilling, incapable, or outright hostile to the idea of carrying out the bold and drastic measures favored by the majority. It is up to regular Americans to stand up and to reclaim government as a means for collectively solving our biggest problems. In the second city, Reclaim Chicago is doing this by articulating a bold new vision for how city government can serve our interests. We’re running several of our own members for city council and endorsing many more that share our values and commit to advancing our platform. We’re also talking to our neighbors, canvassing door to door to listen to their concerns and share our vision. We just can’t wait any longer. It’s still time for a freedom party.