The world’s eyes are on the escalating struggle to defend the collective bargaining rights of Wisconsin public workers. Some people have even called the growing mobilization a transformational movement.
But transformational organizing takes more than growing numbers.
Revisiting the 1955–56 Montgomery Bus Boycott can help us understand what it takes.
In the 1950s, humanity was at a watershed. During World War II nearly 50 million people, more than half of them civilians, had been killed. To win the war, we had created and dropped an atom bomb on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Yet Americans were celebrating our winning this “good war” and even proclaiming the American century because our factories were busy producing the goods that the war-devastated factories of Europe and Japan were unable to produce.
As Einstein put it, “the splitting of the atom has changed everything but the human mind, and thus we drift towards catastrophe.”
It was under these circumstances that the people of Montgomery, Alabama, launched their yearlong boycott to protest the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to go to the back of the bus.
Responding not only to the indignities of segregated busing but to the brutal murder in September 1955 of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a people who had been treated as less than human began a struggle against their dehumanization not as angry victims or rebels but as forerunners of a new, more human society. Practicing methods of non-violence that transformed themselves and increased the good in the world, creating their own transportation system by walking or car pooling, always bearing in mind that their goal was not only desegregating buses but creating the beloved community, they carried on a struggle that grew their own souls and inspired the civil rights movement and the other humanity-redefining movements of the 1960s.
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In 2011 we are again at a watershed that calls for growing our souls. The U.S. empire, which sustained the American Dream of upper mobility and middle class lives for all Americans but also included supporting the world’s Mubaraks, is dead.
That means we have to create a New American Dream. To do this we need to look in the mirror and begin making the radical revolution of values that Dr. King called for in his 1967 anti-Vietnam War “Break the Silence” speech. To make this revolution:
- We, the American people, must acknowledge that we have reached the end of
the empire that has sustained the old American dream. We must not only struggle against the concentration of wealth at the top of American society. We must acknowledge that we have enjoyed many of our middle class comforts and conveniences at the expense of the Earth and of other people here and around the world. We must begin to live more simply and responsibly so that others can simply live.
- We need to ask ourselves new questions about how to provide for the general welfare and how to educate our children. We must create ways to meet these basic needs not mainly through a growing number of public workers but through caring for one another in beloved communities.
- We must begin reorganizing our local, state and federal budgets so that we spend public monies not for military domination and to support the Mubaraks of the world but for constructive human and domestic needs.
The struggle in Wisconsin and other states can become a transformational movement if those involved in the struggle recognize that our current crises are rooted in the decline of the empire which made possible the welfare state with its thousands of public employees to take care of tasks for which we the people must become increasingly responsible.
With the end of empire, we are coming to an end of the epoch of Rights. We have entered the epoch of Responsibilities which requires new, more socially-minded human beings and new, more participatory and place-based concepts of citizenship and democracy.
In cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, abandoned by global corporations, community people are struggling to build more self-reliant, localized economies, growing our own food, restoring the neighbor to the ‘hood, and in the process also growing our souls.
The Wisconsin struggle can be deepened by connecting with these community struggles.
Workers across the country are demanding to know why corporations and the wealthy get bailouts and tax breaks while teachers and steel workers bear the burdens of budget crises.
We can strengthen our communities and ourselves to prepare for the uncertain world of failing economies, climate change, and oil depletion.
Grace Boggs: We must begin the radical revolution of values that King called for, against the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.