This coming year, 2010, marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of three significant events in the post-World War II period. It is the anniversary year of the Bandung conference, held in Indonesia in 1955; the Congress of the People, held in Kliptown, South Africa; and the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama.
Each of these was a seminal event in its own right. The Bandung Conference gave birth to the Non-Aligned Movement and established the prospect that the struggle to abolish colonialism would be victorious. The meeting in Kliptown, South Africa, adopted a Freedom Charter to guide the movement to abolish apartheid at a time when the apartheid system was being tightened by repressive measures. And the Montgomery bus boycott shifted the center of grassroots mass action to the Southern heartland of segregation and set into motion an example that would inspire the freedom movement across the country in our struggle to abolish institutional racism. Each of these events, in one way or another, has informed our activism in the movement, whatever the moment we entered into involvement. Because these events in 1955 occurred at the height of the Cold War abroad and Cold War McCarthyism at home, they carry the fundamental lesson: even in the darkest periods, the people have the power to create the light that illuminates our path to more hopeful times.
Today these events remind us of the achievements that have been made, as well as the unfinished agenda of concerns that continue to challenge us. Today, even as the world observes, in memory, the ending of the Second World War and the victory over Fascism, we are all at the same time witness to the martyrdom of the cities of Iraq by an unjustified, unprovoked U.S.-led military invasion of that small country. We are all witness to the tragedy of the growing impoverishment taking place in our own country among the unemployed, the homeless, those trying desperately to hang onto their jobs with little or no hope. We are all witness to the breaking up of the sense of community that so many feel. Our movement strains to keep up the creative energy of protest against these injustices, often even in the face of assaults on the right to peacefully assemble, frustration with the election process, and other experiences. These add up to “a long train of abuses” that have become part of everyday life.
One of the most common questions often expressed in conversation is, “What do we do now?” One step we could take, which holds the potential for fundamental changes in our country, would be to take a page from the South African experience in their long struggle to abolish apartheid. In 1955, after many months of organizing and public meetings across the country, a grassroots Congress of the People was elected, and it assembled in an area outside Johannesburg. It proclaimed and adopted a Freedom Charter that served and inspired sustained mass mobilization for a South Africa beyond apartheid.
A similar act of realignment and purpose for our country, in the conditions prevailing here, would be the adoption of a “Democracy Charter” as the vision of the America we hope to create. Such a vision, born of experience, would embody the hopes and possibilities of this age in human history. A Democracy Charter would be designed to unite our movement and involve ever-broader sections of the population in the struggle to achieve what we are for, as our efforts to overcome continue to remove obstacles, injustices, and deprivations. It would be an intentional source of energy and shared responsibility and enlightenment for rebuilding the sense of community that empowers us to take on with confidence the challenges that we will overcome.
The Democracy Charter would have as its central purpose bringing into the national dialogue the millions in our country who now feel disenfranchised and disrespected, or otherwise ignored. This involvement will give all of us a confident new identity, as social change agents.
The time is ripe for us, the People of the United States, in all our multicultural diversity and breadth of experience, to adopt a Democracy Charter that brings together as part of a shared vision all of the dimensions of the civilizational crisis that are now being actively addressed, on a limited scale, by one or another organization.
The essential purpose of such a charter is the expansion of democracy and fundamental human rights in our country. Therefore, the historical point of reference of the Democracy Charter is our nation’s Bill of Rights and the subsequent Amendments, won over generations of struggle to enshrine them in the U.S. Constitution. In the U.S. American experience, unyielding resistance to any and all efforts to weaken the Bill of Rights is an essential condition for the transition from formal democracy to a society of substantive democracy. At the very heart of the unfolding struggle for substantive democracy today are the issues of race, class, and gender, in relation to power and decision-making. This has been the fundamental reality since the birth of this Republic.
To briefly review this historical point, the U.S. was the first of a number of communities of European settler colonialism in the hemisphere of the Americas to break with its “mother” country. The architects of the new state then rapidly proceeded to structure their own “made in U.S.A.” mechanisms of exploitation and wealth accumulation.
During the first century following its Declaration of Independence, this structure put into place and rested upon four pillars: First, the seizure of lands held by Native Americans and the privatization of this property, accompanied by the dismantling of the centuries-old social organization of these original inhabitants; second, the consolidation and expansion of the system of enslavement of Africans, as an economic institution inherited from years of British rule and codified into law in the new U.S. Constitution (a kind of affirmative action to the benefit of the slave owners); third, the military seizure and annexation, in the War of 1846-1848, of a land area amounting to one third of the Mexican Republic; and fourth, the exploitation of a wage-labor working class among the new immigrant population brought in primarily from northern Europe, with the notable exception of Chinese workers, who were admitted for long enough to help complete the railroad to the West Coast, then denied further entry through the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress. The position of women in this paradigm is self-evident, especially since they were denied the formal democratic right to vote until 1919. These historical circumstances, taken together with the success of the American Revolution itself in breaking free of the British Empire, provided both the material conditions and the political power base for the economic royalists of the new republic to shape and promote the ideology of “American exceptionalism” as a major component in U.S. culture. Further, the much-valued achievements of formal democracy as exemplified by the Bill of Rights reveal their limitations in daily life experience. Consequently the need is urgent to take up the banner of struggle for substantive democracy and empower this process.
The following points suggest primary items for inclusion in a proposed Democracy Charter.