There are several differences between Dr. Martin Luther King and his contemporaries Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton that made Dr. King far more effective in creating social change than either of these other men.
These differences are primarily contextual, but there are differences in organization, vision and execution that help to account for the differing efficacies of these leaders. While Revs. Jackson and Sharpton stand outside the gates telling the emperor that he is, in fact, naked, Dr. King was able to move into the halls of power, bringing his message through the barriers of power intact. Dr. King was received by people who’s opinions mattered because they had the power to back up their words. Revs. Jackson and Sharpton speak to few who are in a position to influence the politics of the nation, much less the people of the nation. They are seen by many as more of a nuisance than as any real threat to the status quo.
Dr. King, because he was able to transcend the boundaries of power, was rightly seen as someone who could foment change in a society that craved stability and stasis over reconciliation and justice.
Al Sharpton Marches With Occupy Protesters in October, 2011
The context of power is different today. Power is more diffused throughout the population now than it was in the 1960’s. This is one of the legacies of the Voting Rights Act that Dr. King helped to push through. That act made the country more democratic, guaranteeing everyone the right to a voice and a say in our politics. Ironically, this diffusion of power and voice has watered down and fractured what was once a fairly monolithic community of people of color. (Reference: Rebuilding a Fractured Movement.)
Along with an increase in political power the concurrent increase in economic power among communities of color is also a significant factor that prevents Revs. Jackson and Sharpton from holding sway as Dr. King did. Wealth has made many complacent, sucking them into the lulling comfort that has always characterized the majority.
Dr. King was able to speak to the across the board suffering experienced by people of color and the poor, pulling those people together in common cause. Now that many people of color are “wealthy” and relatively un-oppressed this leverage of common suffering has been lost. Revs. Jackson and Sharpton have to speak to many different groups, each of which has its own agenda and may be unwilling to take action to upset the status quo that maintains their comfortable lives.
Jesse Jackson speaks at the UN
Revs. Jackson and Sharpton have many messages. They never stay very long in one place or on one subject, choosing instead to parachute into “crisis” spots and rabble rouse for specific causes. Dr. King had one message: justice for all. He carried this message with him everywhere he went. When he parachuted into a place, it was to address specific injustice in that place but always with a direct and compelling link to the wider injustice of the society as a whole.
Revs. Jackson and Sharpton rarely make compelling arguments that link whatever their current cause is to a wider movement for justice. How does last week’s protest on the death of Trayvon Martin fit into the larger context of seeking justice for all peoples? How does this singular protest fare in comparison to Dr. King’s final protest with the sanitation workers of Memphis? Dr. King’s protest was clearly linked to the plight of people of color and especially poor working people.
It follows that Revs. Jackson and Sharpton are largely reactionary whereas Dr. King was proactive. Dr. King was truly a forward thinking leader, a modern day prophet, who saw what could be in America and planned out how to take down the systems of oppression. He then executed the plan to the benefit of all Americans.
Revs. Jackson and Sharpton seem to have no plan or coherent strategy other than to get on television with their rallies and speeches. The injustice of today is not codified in any explicit way. Whereas Dr. King fought Jim Crow and the specific statutes which constituted it, Revs. Jackson and Sharpton have to fight against the phantoms of a bankrupt moral code in the halls of government, corporate greed and the resulting damage to the fortunes and dignity of common people, and other such intangibles as imbedded racism and hidden bias.
These phantasms are much more difficult to fight because they remain firmly out of sight of the general population. When the people are focused on surviving in a tough economy, saying that the corporations that have the jobs are not doing us any favors, even as they cut benefits and wages, is not a popular argument. The struggles of today are not the struggles of the past.
In many ways Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have it much harder than Martin Luther King did, having to fight an imbedded and largely out of sight oppression. As Douglass Rushkoff says, “One of the central issues in the prophetic life is that a person rocks the boat, not by telling slaves to be free, but by telling people who think they’re free that they’re slaves.” In Martin’s time, the people knew they were still enslaved by the system. But now, since gaining a sense of freedom through the Civil Rights Movement, people have largely given up thoughts of oppression, choosing instead to believe that their own choices are the prime determinants of their destiny. They can’t see that they are still yoked to systems that, while they may not be malicious in their intent, still do not put the welfare of the people first.
Jesse and Al are not doing themselves any favors acting as jesters in the media. If they want to make change and free those who are still unwittingly oppressed they will have to follow in Dr. King’s footsteps: move into and among the halls of power and gain the attention and respect of the powerful there, form and execute a coherent strategy of change, and bring all of the diverse groups back together under one banner of justice.