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STANFORD -- The decision of most black leaders in the 1950s and '60s to concentrate on the pursuit of political and civil rights at the expense of economic rights was justifiable, but has proven to be costly, says the co-author of a new book on rights in America.
Although African American activists had good reasons to focus their energies on securing voting rights and desegregating schools and public facilities, that strategy too long delayed work on economic goals, such as a national policy of jobs or income for all citizens, Stewart Burns said. Burns is associate editor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, where he also lectures in history.
As Burns and his father, historian James MacGregor Burns, write in their book A People's Charter: The Pursuit of Rights in America (published by Knopf), the 20th-century black freedom movement "did not make economic needs and aspirations a high priority. At first glance the abundance of movement rhetoric about black poverty and joblessness and the obligatory demands for economic betterment seem to belie this. But if one looks at deeds not words, and to the deployment of movement resources, it is clear that economic rights were slighted - until it was probably too late to make a real difference."
Not until 1966 did King begin to focus in a major way on economic justice, which then became a major theme of his leadership for the last year of his life, Burns said.
To have included economic goals in the black freedom struggle "would have taken a kind of visionary leadership that was missing even from Dr. King until a later point," Burns said.
"If the King of the late '60s had been able to go back in time to the late '50s and start over, with the consciousness he had later about issues of class and race, and how racism was tied in with poverty and militarism, I think he would have pursued a very different course, because he would have been able to see beyond the immediate period and look for what was coming down the road," Burns said.
Although he did not live to see its fruition, the 1968 Poor People's Campaign was King's finest hour, Burns said. It represented the maturity of King's political thinking "when he came to see that all these issues were linked, that economic rights were inseparable from political and civil rights, that they all had to be integrated into a common cause, and in a multicultural alliance of poor and disadvantaged peoples."
The compartmentalization of rights, with economic rights slighted, goes back to the 19th century, Burns said. In the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, just emancipated slaves and their supporters in the Republican Party worked hard to achieve suffrage for black males. They succeeded for a time, until Southern states systematically stripped voting rights from blacks toward the end of the 19th century.
But while Republican officials were willing to work to add prospective allies to the voting rolls, Burns said, they were not willing to grant the kind of civil and economic rights "that would have led to greater integration of freed African Americans into mainstream American society."
For example, he said, the Freedman's Bureau, set up by Congress to oversee the social transition out of slavery, had as part of its mandate the redistribution of abandoned and confiscated lands to poor Southern blacks who needed land desperately. But this never occurred on more than a small scale, he said, due to the resistance of entrenched landholding elites and to Washington's lack of commitment.
A century later, rights again were compartmentalized and traded off against each other, Burns said, in part because of decisions made by black leaders, but primarily because of pressures from the federal government.
In the early 1960s, he said, then-attorney general Robert Kennedy urged black leaders to give up efforts to achieve civil rights, such as desegregated facilities, in return for federal support for voter registration.
"It was in the interest of the Kennedy administration to increase the number of black Democratic voters in the South since they were losing conservative white Democratic voters," Burns said. The activist groups, after much deliberation, decided to work for both voting rights and desegregation.
It is not only the government that creates and defines rights, Burns said his book shows. Through their political struggles and reform movements, citizens have been responsible for defining and achieving rights, he said.
Just as health care is not today considered a right, so a century ago women's suffrage was not considered a right, Burns said. It took 75 years of campaigning before women won the right to vote.
"It's likely that in 25 years we will see something like a right to health care widely accepted in this country," although probably not incorporated into the Constitution, Burns said.
About four years ago, James MacGregor Burns and Stewart Burns began talking about writing a major book on rights in U.S. history, using the Bill of Rights as the foundation of a longer history of how rights of all kinds have developed and been transformed over the past two centuries. What they originally envisioned as a three-volume series turned into a single 577-page book.
The logistics of co-authorship were challenging, since James MacGregor Burns lives in Massachusetts, where he is Woodrow Wilson Professor of Government Emeritus at Williams College, and Stewart Burns is based at Stanford. The two met every three months, but communicated primarily through letters, a correspondence that the younger Burns said he has considered publishing, since "the letters say a great deal about the whole process of putting the book together and how our ideas evolved."
Thinking and writing about rights is complicated, Burns said, because rights seldom appear full-blown, but emerge along a continuum from the time they are first conceived or defined. For example, they may be enacted into law but not enforced, or enforced but only halfheartedly.
Nevertheless, he said, the fact that rights are spelled out in the Constitution or in laws or Supreme Court decisions is significant "and can be a springboard to later efforts to enact stronger laws or to give people the strength or moral authority they need to enforce rights more thoroughly or to move toward the definition or assertion of rights in an entirely new area."
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