Work not War, Employment not Empire

The way truly to commemorate King’s work for universal human rights is not merely through words or rhetoric, but through our own concerted action—never more needed than during the United Nations Decade of Nonviolence, 2001-2010.

King’s unfinished mission was the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in Washington to secure economic justice—decent “jobs or income” for poor and disadvantaged Americans. Can we, American citizens, try to fulfill this unfinished mission that an assassin’s bullet cut short on April 4, 1968?

Let us dream together. What would such a campaign for economic justice look like today? What would be its goals, its strategy and tactics? Might it focus on the mission of creating meaningful work for all peoples of the “world house,” as King called the global community—work that provides a decent livelihood, does not harm the planet or its inhabitants (better yet, helps to repair the planet), and connects people to each other in helpful ways? The quest for meaningful work in a sustainable global economy is likely to become—if not already—the defining problem of the 21st century.

Can we dream together, as citizens of the world, and work together, across boundaries of nation, race, religion, class, gender, and age, to realize such a vision for all peoples?

What if thousands of young people, and their allies of all ages, resolved to take it upon themselves to try to fulfill Dr. King’s final, unfulfilled quest for economic justice?

What if these global citizens decided that economic justice for all Americans, no matter how ambitious and noble a goal, was not sufficient—nor would it even be possible in the 21st century for Americans to achieve economic justice without peoples around the world sharing in the common wealth; that economic justice must be global in scope or it will only mean comfort for a shrinking few, continuing pain and worsening exploitation for the growing many. And the impact of this sharpening inequality on the planet and its limited resources? We do not want to go there.

What if these citizens—young, old, and in-between—decided that, while so much has changed in the third of a century since 1968, Washington is—more than ever—the place where the most fundamental priorities are being set, the most fundamental policies are being made, that affect the future, indeed the survival, of the peoples of the world?

What if these thousands of committed citizens—you and I among them—decided to “take back” our nation’s capital, and our people’s physical capital (money and resources), to make Washington the center not of global empire but of global citizenship? The center of real democracy rather than of an autocratic, military-financial colossus—starting with the enfranchisement of its own voteless citizens?

What if this well-trained, nonviolent army decided, like the young participants in Freedom Summer of 1964 did in undemocratic Mississippi, to stay put in Washington for several months, through the spring and summer, living in the homes of local residents who supported their mission? What if this nonviolent army spent its days in sustained imaginative protest, tenacious articulate lobbying, and constructive programs like after-school tutoring, aid to elders, home repair, neighborhood improvement, and voting rights organizing, to benefit the local community? And spent their nights and weekends building a “beloved community” among themselves and their supporters, a diverse community that would endure and grow, creating long-term networks of committed global citizens to take further steps toward worldwide justice, peace, and healing of the planet.

If you would like to explore this idea for a Work not War Campaign in Washington, a nonviolent campaign in the tradition of King and Gandhi, of Ella Baker and Bob Moses, to reclaim our capital—our nation’s capital as well as our capital in human and material resources—please email for more information, to join an email discussion group, or to set up a face-to-face discussion group in your community or campus.

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