The ‘Freedom Budget’ from the Civil Rights Movement

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Kathleen Geier wrote an important post at the Political Animal blog about the forgotten history of the Civil Rights Movement. After all, the March on Washington was The March on Washington was a march for “Jobs and Freedom” (excerpts):

MarchOnWashingtonAmericans remember the march as an historic step forward in the
battle for civil rights. But feel-good media celebrations of the march,
and the civil rights era in general, often focus on the less
controversial parts of the civil rights project: equal accommodations
and the like. What they leave out is the more radical, still unfinished
business of Dr. King’s and the civil rights movement’s agenda: the part
that involved, in the words of Harold Meyerson, “massive structural changes to the economy.”

Meyerson has a wonderful piece
in The American Prospect this week about the economic progressives who
helped plan the March on Washington
. Among them were activists Bayard
Rustin and Ella Baker and labor leader A. Philip Randolph. Like MLK
himself, they were democratic socialists. As Meyerson notes, as early as
1962, democratic socialist and writer Michael Harrington was worried
about “the declining number of African Americans in manufacturing jobs.”
He believed that ensuring the government’s commitment to full
employment was crucial. Activists such as A. Philip Randolph raised
similar concerns. Meyerson picks up the story:

An organization that Randolph chaired, the Negro
American Labor Council, began discussing what action it could take to
address the plight of urban black workers in 1961. Rustin started taking
soundings for some kind of national demonstration in 1962, and in
December of that year, he and Randolph began talking about a march on
Washington. Randolph asked Rustin to write a prospectus for such a
march, and with Kahn and Norman Hill, an African American socialist
activist, he co-authored a paper calling for an “Emancipation March for
Jobs” that he presented to Randolph in January 1963 (the 100th
anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation).

Ultimately, the focus of the march expanded beyond economic
rights to include civil rights and voting rights. But economic rights
remained an important feature of the march and a linchpin of the civil
rights struggle in the years ahead.

In fact, three years later in 1966, the civil rights movement was the
driving force behind a remarkable document that attempted to make the
economic justice envisioned by the civil rights movement a reality. This
document (which can be found here)
was called the Freedom Budget, and it outlined a plan to end poverty
and unemployment in the United States within ten years
. It is the
subject of a new academic book by Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates
called A Freedom
Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights
Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today
.

In an interview this week with Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed,
Le Blanc notes that the plan was developed by prominent economists,
most notably Leon Keyserling, a left-leaning Keynesian and old New
Dealer. In addition, Le Blanc says, it was “endorsed by over 200
prominent academics, religious leaders, trade unionists, and civil
rights figures.” Le Blanc emphasizes just how deeply important the
principle of economic justice was to Dr. King and his work:

Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech cannot be
comprehended unless we understand it as the culmination of a March for
Jobs and Freedom, linking economic justice with racial justice. From his
college days in the late 1940s until his death in 1968, King was deeply
committed to overcoming poverty and economic exploitation no less than
to overcoming racism. He came to see the struggles to overcome economic
and racial oppression as inseparable. In addressing the AFL-CIO
convention in 1961, he repeated something he had emphasized more than
once over the years — projecting “a dream of equality of opportunity, of
privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men
will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

In his preface to the summary version of the Freedom Budget
in 1966, King argued that “there is no way merely to find work, or
adequate housing, or quality-integrated schools for Negroes alone.” In
his explanation of the Freedom Budget’s meaning, he underscored the
underlying assumptions animating the organizers of the 1963 March: “We
shall eliminate slums for Negroes when we destroy ghettos and build new
cities for all. We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we
demand full and fair employment for all.” This was part of the meaning
of the assertion in his “I Have a Dream” speech that many whites “have
come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our
freedom.”

In 2013, it’s jarring to realize just how much of Dr. King’s dream remains unrealized.

* * *

Scott McLemee, who interviewed Le Blanc, asked him why he and his co-author wrote the Freedom Budget book. This, in part, is what he said:

Michael Yates and I are inspired by the better, more
abundant, more democratic future that the Freedom Budget was reaching
for. We believe such a future could be possible, and that a growing
number of people — given the multiple crises afflicting our society and
world — will be looking for how we might get to such a better future.
Changes in the world over the past four decades necessitate, we think, a
new version of the Freedom Budget, and we offer some thought about what
this might look like.

Certainly, looking at today’s dystopic jobless economy, the Freedom
Budget’s vision of a full-employment economy seems not only like a good
idea, but a deeply necessary one. Sometimes we need to go back to the
past to re-invent the future. The Freedom Budget would be an excellent
place to start. To paraphrase what someone once wrote, a political
movement’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?

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