Democracy Charter
 — Jack O'Dell

[Written in July 2005 on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Bandung Conference, the adoption of the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress, and the Montgomery bus boycott; later revised for Climbing' Jacob's Ladder: The Black Freedom Movement Writings of Jack O'Dell. 2010.. ]

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of three significant events in the post-World War II period. This is the fiftieth anniversary year of the Bandung Conference, held in Indonesia in 1955; the Congress of the People, held in Kliptown, South Africa; and the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama.

Each of these was a seminal event in its own right. The Bandung Conference gave birth to the Non-Aligned Movement and established the prospect that the struggle to abolish colonialism would be victorious. The meeting in Kliptown, South Africa, adopted a Freedom Charter to guide the movement to abolish apartheid, at a time when the apartheid system was being tightened by repressive measures. And the Montgomery Bus Boycott shifted the center of grassroots mass action in America to the southern heartland of segregation and set into motion an example that would inspire the freedom movement across the country in our struggle to abolish institutional racism,

Each of these events, in one way or another, has informed our activism in the movement, whatever the moment we first entered into involvement. Because these events in 1955 occurred at the height of the Cold War abroad and Cold War McCarthyism at home, they carry a fundamental lesson: even in the darkest periods, the people have the power to create the light that illuminates our path to more hopeful times. Today these events remind us of the achievements that have been made, as well as the unfinished agenda of concerns that continue to challenge us.

Today, even as the world observes, in memory, the ending of the Second World War and the victory over fascism, we are all at the same time witness to the destruction of the cities of Iraq by an unjustified, unprovoked U.S. led military invasion of that small country. We are all witness to the tragedy of the growing impoverishment taking place in our own country among the unemployed, the homeless, those trying desperately to hang on to their jobs with little or no hope. We are all witness to the fraying sense of community that so many feel. Our movement strains to keep up the creative energy of protest against these injustices, often even in the face of assaults on the right to peacefully assemble, frustration with the election process, and other experiences. These add up to "a long train of abuses" that have become part of everyday life.

One of the most common questions expressed in conversation is, "What do we do now?" One step we could take, which holds the potential for fundamental changes in our country, would be to take a page from the experience of South Africans in their long struggle to abolish apartheid. In 1955, after many months of organizing and public meetings across the country, a grassroots Congress of the People was elected, and it assembled in an area outside Johannesburg. It adopted and proclaimed a Freedom Charter that served and inspired sustained mass mobilization for a South Africa beyond apartheid.

A similar act of realignment and renewal of purpose for our country, in the conditions prevailing here, would be the adoption of a "Democracy Charter" as the vision of the America we hope to create. Such a vision, born of experience, would embody the hopes and possibilities of this age in human history. A Democracy Charter would be designed to unite our movement and involve ever broader sections of the population in the struggle to achieve what we are striving for, as our efforts to overcome continue to remove obstacles, injustices, and deprivations. It would be an intentional source of energy and shared responsibility and enlightenment for rebuilding the sense of community that empowers us to take on with confidence the challenges that we will overcome.

The Democracy Charter would have as its central purpose bringing into the national dialogue the millions in our country who now feel disenfranchised and disrespected, or otherwise ignored. This involvement will give all of us a confident new identity, as social change agents. The time is ripe for us, the people of the United States, in all our multicultural diversity and breadth of experience, to adopt a Democracy Charter that brings together as part of a shared vision all the dimensions of the civilizational crisis that are now being actively addressed, on a limited scale, by one or another organization.

The essential purpose of such a charter is the expansion of democracy and fundamental human rights in our country. Therefore, the historical point of reference of the Democracy Charter is our nation's Bill of Rights and the subsequent Amendments, won over generations of struggle to enshrine them in the U.S. Constitution. In the U.S. experience, unyielding resistance to any and all efforts to weaken the Bill of Rights is an essential condition for the transition from formal democracy to a society of substantive democracy.

At the very heart of the unfolding struggle for substantive democracy today are the issues of race, class, and gender, in relation to power and decision-making. This has been the fundamental reality since the birth of this republic. To briefly review this historical point, the United States was the first of a number of communities of European settler colonialism in the hemisphere of the Americas to break with its "mother" country. The architects of the new state then rapidly proceeded to structure their own "made in the U.S.A." mechanisms of exploitation and wealth accumulation. During the first century following its Declaration of Independence, this structure was put into place and rested upon four pillars:

The position of women in this paradigm is self-evident, especially since they were denied the formal democratic right to vote until 1919. These historical circumstances, taken together with the success of the American Revolution itself in breaking free of the British Empire, provided both the material conditions and the political power base for the economic royalists of the new republic to shape and promote the ideology of "American exceptionalism" as a major component in U.S. culture. Further, the much-valued achievements of formal democracy as exemplified by the Bill of Rights reveal their limitations in daily life experience. Consequently the need is urgent to take up the banner of struggle for substantive democracy and empower this process.

The following points suggest primary items for inclusion in a proposed Democracy Charter:

    I. A national commitment to end homelessness during this next decade. Eighty percent of the homeless are women and people of color, more often than not families with children. Twelve million people pay more than 50 percent of their monthly income for either rent or mortgage, often for substandard housing — such is the shortage of affordable housing. Relief to these twelve million and the uncounted numbers of homeless beyond them would also create jobs and the basis for expanding job training in the construction industry.

    II. A national commitment to an economy of full employment, at socially useful jobs, and a livable wage as public policy. In the late 1970s, Congress passed the Humphrey-Hawkins bill, which set a national goal of full employment, although the maximum allowable unemployment was to be 4 percent. Even this goal has largely been ignored as public policy and rarely achieved; and 4 percent unemployment is still too high. Yet in some of our largest urban centers, for example, unemployment among African American men is over 40 percent. Official propaganda in times of recession praising a "jobless recovery" is a cover-up for long-term depression and stagnation as the economic reality. Today, the many grassroots state and local movements are the standard bearers demanding jobs for all who seek them. Recognition of workers' inalienable right to self-organization is one way of guaranteeing that the struggle for these goals is sustained.

    III. The right to an environment free of bigotry, violence, and intolerance, as an expression of our nation's irreversible commitment to human rights, including full recognition of reproductive rights and the rights of gays and lesbians.

    IV. The doors of learning open to all, from early childhood education through college, as a public trust. This is, for our time, the next step in the "Economic Bill of Rights" proposed by President Roosevelt in 1944 as public policy, but abandoned after his death and the rise of Cold War politics.

    The National Education Association estimated in 2002 that the nation's public schools could be put into Grade-A condition for an investment of about $380 billion dollars. Our nation spent almost half that amount on the war on Iraq in its first year, and that cost is still rising. As for post-secondary education, we must never forget that tens of thousands of our young people who volunteer for the armed forces are not seeking an opportunity to go to war or be trained to kill; rather, they are looking for an opportunity to go to college and improve their lives. This is an investment in our nation's future.

    A public education system that prepared youngsters to begin formal higher learning and then supported them as far as their ability and inclination took them would strengthen both our country's economic position and civil society.

    A major contribution to building substantive democracy would be for the United States to become officially bilingual, as a nation, in English and Spanish. As one benefit, national bilingualism would greatly enrich our knowledge of the hemisphere in which we live.

    V. A new foreign and military policy as an expression of our nation's character. A new direction would mean a foreign policy of peace, cooperation with our neighbors throughout the hemisphere of the Americas, and mutual respect that guarantees the future of the planet as our shared home.

    The "superpower" or "lone superpower" rhetoric of the Cold War is without merit as an operational concept in the conduct of foreign policy. It promotes racism and national arrogance, accompanied by a false sense of national security. It helps institutionalize bloated, wasteful military budgets as normal; pollutes and distorts the practices of government diplomacy; and predictably depletes our reserves of moral capital in the world.

    Nothing underscores these ill effects more clearly than the role played by the United States in denying the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people (or, closer to home, the Haitian people) over decades and in leading or sponsoring military aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia today. These harsh truths have been amply documented, as has the record of calculated deception of the public here at home that usually accompanies these activities — regardless of which "major political party" is in power.

    This abuse of power constitutes a monumental example of unaccountable government. Public awareness of U.S. overseas activities both corporate and political — and their effects has been steadily growing. This is evidenced in our country's very active anti-war movement, which is increasingly putting emphasis on creating a peace culture, as an antidote to the war culture so pervasive in the United States.

    Nevertheless, foreign: and military policy is an area of the people's business that requires a quantum leap in public awareness and involvement, in order to give a progressive content to our relations with the rest of the world. Experience has shown that such a transformation is not only a moral imperative; it is absolutely essential to improving conditions here at home.

    A new foreign and military policy means a new kind of defense budget, one in harmony with other domestic goals, not one designed to enrich the biggest corporate "defense" contractors and their stockholders while the public pays the bill. A new foreign and military policy also means that no longer will the U.S. government produce, use, or sell weapons — such as land mines, cluster bombs, depleted uranium shells, or Agent Orange — that destroy the environment in which living beings have to survive. The Vietnamese people are still suffering from the catastrophic effects of these weapons used against them.

    Since our nation led the world into the era of nuclear weapons, we should lead the world by example out of that era by renouncing the possession of nuclear weapons and taking concrete steps to eliminate the U.S. stockpile of such weapons, as a matter of principle. The continued production of these weapons of terror is neither morally justified nor socially useful economic activity. It contributes to neither the real wealth nor the well-being of society, while it uses up nonrenewable resources that could otherwise benefit our country. Further, the use of these terrible weapons inflicts long-term damage on other countries and on our ability to function as a member of the worldwide community of nations. We, the people of the United States, can end this!

    VI. Universal health insurance coverage (single-payer model). The cost of worker contributions to health care premiums in industry-sponsored plans has tripled since 1988. That tens of millions of people have either no health insurance at all or inadequate insurance to cover catastrophic illness is well known. In recent years, lack of adequate health insurance has become a major source of family financial insecurity, often leading to bankruptcy. A system in which the government pays expenses necessary to cure illnesses and injuries and also takes responsibility for promoting practices that help maintain good health would improve our country's international standing in measures of life expectancy and productivity as well as removing the unfairness of a health care system based on ability to pay.

    VII. A Social Security system with firm and undiminished integrity. Our present Social Security system is both a shared commitment to contribute during our employed years, and a universal benefit we share in our retirement years! It is our nation's premier anti-poverty program, protecting more young people as beneficiaries than does current "welfare," in its "reformed" state. Without Social Security, half of all women over sixty-five would fall into poverty.

    VIII. A farm economy restructured to rest on family and cooperative enterprise. In the early decades of the twentieth century, family farming was the major form of property ownership among African Americans in the South. Today, African Americans own less than 2 percent of farms. Millions of people in our country are skilled, professional farmers, They should not be subjected to the greed and unbridled power of the corporate monopolies in the retail market. Everyone will benefit if the traditional family farm and cooperatives become once again the primary source of food production.

    IX. A prison system accountable to the public for fulfilling its charge as a center for rehabilitation. The responsibility of the penal system is to guide the rehabilitation of incarcerated people so that, with the help of families, neighbors, and social service agencies, they can renew their place in the community. The existence of a "prison-industrial complex" in our country is a fundamental violation of the social purpose of the prison system in a democratic society. The operation of U.S. prisons in other countries is an affront to the sovereignty of such countries and a disgrace to our own. All of these institutions should be permanently closed as a matter of public policy, and the penal system should be redesigned to carry out its social purpose.

    X. Restoration, preservation, and protection of the quality of our natural environment as a vital social inheritance for future generations to use and enjoy. Reversing the present pattern of pollution and degradation requires promoting and expanding community activities, as well as supporting public works projects that encourage a culture of social responsibility for keeping our rivers, lakes, parks, and other environmental gifts in healthy condition.

    Our country has a long-term interest in becoming one of the leaders in worldwide efforts to stop contributing to global warming and to protect our common home from harm.

    XI. Expanded public ownership and management of resources strategic to the health of our nation's economy. Such strategic resources include oil, gas, and other sources of energy, as well as public transportation. Stricter federal and state regulation against pollution and mismanagement would accompany the growth in public ownership. Louisiana, with its "cancer alley" created by the petrochemical industry's reckless disregard for public health concerns, makes the case for public ownership and accountability. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) offers one model.

    XII. The right to know that every vote will be counted — a guarantee that is an inseparable part of the right to vote. The assault on the voting system itself, which we and the world witnessed in Florida, Ohio, and other states in two successive presidential elections, is now recognized as a nationwide problem of scandalous proportions. Because this problem remains unrepaired, we face yet another congressional election in which defects in the voting process could determine the results. As long as we allow this situation to continue, our elections are far less representative of democracy than those held in most Western industrialized countries. The principle of fair voter access and accurate, accountable vote tabulation should be visibly maintained, reinforced by the introduction of proportional representation in all elections where applicable.

    XIII. The air waves maintained as national public property. We affirm this principle upon which the Federal Communications Commission was founded as a regulatory agency during the New Deal period: "The air waves are the property of the American people." The democracy that this principle embodies has been hijacked and distorted by the hucksters of marketplace television and the demagogues of hate-radio. The consolidation of corporate power in these areas — together with their counterpart, the film industry — denies the public's right to be informed, limits public access to a violence-free culture, and confines the exercise of artistic creativity.

    The media must be responsible to their audience, not to advertisers or powerful pressure groups. We affirm the principle of public air;wave ownership as indispensable in the struggle to achieve a substantive democracy in our country, especially in this age of global communications and the bright possibilities they offer.

Toward the Second Reconstruction

These thirteen points, with the abbreviated comments that accompany them, are meant essentially as a framework for incorporating other vital issues of concern to such a charter. There is no order of priority herein, but an attempt to present a picture that will enable us to view these vital issues as a body in their interconnectedness, rather than just separately. To further elaborate and project applicable remedies is the purpose of movement-building, as a sustaining force.

The Democracy Charter proposal is designed to acknowledge and enhance the effective work that is already being done in many areas of movement activity. When harnessed to the grassroots organizing tradition, the Democracy Charter can bring new energy that is transformational in its possibilities for social change in our nation. It must become a full part of the "good news" that involves and inspires our artists, poets, and creators in all cultural media to use their talents to spread this message of hope and new possibilities.

Because of its perspective of emphasis on our movement's goals and objectives, the charter is an invitation that seeks to engage a different kind of national conversation — one that is positive and purposeful in the sharing of experiences and free of the tone that too often discourages participation. This is a great moment for all of us, as we confidently take up the challenge to create a vision, shared with the people all around us, that embodies "Freedom from Fear" and expands the movement/community, built by the people all around us, as they actively embrace the ideas of the charter they have created and proceed to translate these hopes into constructive actions.

The common ingredients in all this liberating work are integrity and love.

The Democracy Charter seeks to penetrate the depths of what Dr. Martin Luther King nearly forty years ago called "a deeper malady within the American spirit," of which "the war in Vietnam is but a symptom " (Riverside Church speech, April 4, I967). This is the key to the success of all our collective efforts to transform our nation into a peaceful, socially conscious democracy.

In this spirit, we shall overcome!


Some will view and embrace the Democracy Charter as a platform for electoral activity. This is obviously a useful purpose. However, it should not obscure the larger purpose of the charter: to encourage the creation of a comprehensive strategic vision and a conceptual framework that organically connects all the different areas of active concern. When this is anchored to community-based grassroots organizing for testing and cultivation, our movement will view its challenges accordingly and grow to become a recognized center of moral authority in the public mind.

Modern societies are measured not alone by the quantity of wealth produced, but also by the quality of the distribution of that wealth for the economic, social, and cultural benefit of the general population. By that standard, we in the United States have the wealthiest economy in the world but lag considerably behind much of Western Europe, Canada, and Japan in the deployment of our resources. This maldistribution of wealth is a fundamental question of democracy. The content of the Democracy Charter makes this emphasis clear.

Hurricane Katrina and the human tragedy that occurred in its wake brought terrible suffering, to which millions of people in our country are witness. The outpouring of concern and humanitarian assistance was an inspiring response to this tragedy. Beyond catastrophe and response, the event, with its devastation in New Orleans and across the Gulf region, opened up a moment of enormous opportunity for a serious appraisal of our American predicament and a search for the remedies needed to cure the nation's maladies. This combination of circumstances has provided our movement, and the nation, the opportunity to move away from emphasizing September 11, 2001, as a point of reference and embrace the experience of September 2005.

One of the scientists at the Hurricane Center at Louisiana State university in Baton Rouge was asked by a CNN reporter to summarize in a few words why the levees broke in New Orleans. The scientist pinned the blame on two factors: "Inadequate design and years of neglect." In the course of its development, our Democracy Charter will inevitably inspire all of us to accept as a patriotic duty the responsibility to search out those areas of inadequate design and years of neglect in the making of public policy decisions that have affected everyday life here. The nation's present and future will be well served by such an effort. Further, such progressive, transformational activity will open up avenues of cooperation with our brothers and sisters in Latin America, who — in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, and elsewhere — are boldly discovering new forms of grassroots democracy through which to change their lives for the better. This is a rich experience from which there is much to be learned.

The immediate audience to be enlisted to support and shape the Democracy Charter consists of the more than fifty-eight million who voted their hopes for regime change in the last federal election. In this level of mobilization lies the power to carry the United States to a higher .plateau of democracy and peace.

Copyright © Jack O'Dell, 2005


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