As a chilly rain fell Thursday afternoon, the powerful voice of Peniel E. Joseph rang through Dewey Square. Joseph, a Professor of History at Tufts University, was delivering a lecture for Occupy Boston’s Free School University, entitled “Martin Luther King Jr., American Democracy, and the Search for Economic Justice.” Speaking without notes and with an eloquent, forceful rhetorical style, Joseph drew connections between the Civil Rights and the Occupy movements.
His lecture began with a biographical detail: Joseph was just eight years old when he made his first appearance on a picket-line. His longstanding fascination with social justice eventually led him to study its history. On this day, Joseph told his audience about an overlooked chapter from this history.
“We often celebrate only one strand of Dr. King’s legacy,” Joseph said. “We neglect his unceasing demands for economic justice.”
As early as the March on Washington in 1963, occasion of the “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. King spoke for fair wages and the redistribution of wealth, Joseph explained. And in the final years of his life, the “non-violent warrior” insisted more and more on the interlocking nature of “war, poverty, and racial injustice.” The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and King’s trip to Memphis to support striking garbage workers were part of his activism for “average, ordinary American citizens”.
“Occupy is in the best tradition of such activism,” Joseph told the audience.
Joseph led a discussion of other topics, as well. Responding to voiced disappointment in President Obama, Joseph said, “As a historian, I can tell you: it’s not presidents who change society. People change society, by making their voices heard.”
He continued to say that among the most urgent problems we face today is high incarceration rates. Almost two million people in this United States are in jail, and nearly half of them are African-American. Despite a rhetoric “equal opportunity,” we need to insist on “the equality of outcomes.” As civil rights are curtailed and corporate power grows, “we have to be the change we’re looking for,” Joseph intoned.
One quotation from Dr. King recurred several times in the course of Joseph’s talk, to great cheers: “The great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.”
The concluding message of his lecture brought shouts of affirmation from the audience, huddled together in the damp plaza. “Historically, America has had citizens who bled for democracy – not only in times of war, but in times of peace,” Joseph recalled. In a week that witnessed brutal crackdowns on Occupy encampments across the country, Joseph’s lecture linked the victims of police violence to a proud history of democratic action.
Peniel Joseph is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. If you are interested in learning more, a number of his articles and essays are accessible for free at his website.