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We Need Activists to Make Politicians Better

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To that end, he declared that, "We will have to continue demonstrations." And he meant it. He and his allies dispatched a young Michael Harrington to organize protests at the Democratic National Convention of 1960, and those protests forced the party to finally begin to distance itself from its southern segregationist wing. In 1963, Randolph called for a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" in order t o pressure then-President John F. Kennedy to get serious about passing civil rights and voting-rights legislation -- and about using the power of the federal government to protect civil rights activists from state violence in the south. Randolph never let up, he kept pressing for more racial justice, more economic justice, more justice.

Most Americans know little about A. Philip Randolph. As Howard Zinn taught us, the great movers and shakers of our people's history are often neglected. Yet, we do know that FDR and Truman took steps to end segregation and discrimination, that Kennedy was moved by the March on Washington, and that Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, signed a Civil Rights Act and a Voting Rights Act. Some of us know that, after Johnson signed those historic measures, he continued to feel pressure from Randolph, Rustin, King and others to wage the genuine War on Poverty that they demanded with their "Freedom Budget."

Randolph and the movements with which he worked forced candidates and presidents with whom the labor leader had good relations, and who he often believed to be well-intentioned, to move beyond relationships and intentions to action. In so doing, he made the leaders of the United States better than they imagined they could be at responding to issues of racial disparity and economic injustice. There is some dispute about whether FDR actually encouraged the union leader to create pressure that could not be denied, with the line: "Go out and make me do it." But there is no disputing that Randolph and the movements with which he worked made FDR and Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson do it, and in so doing played a critical role in changing America.

Nor is there any question that FDR and Truman and Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson are better remembered today because they responded to the pressure.

The same goes for the 2016 presidential candidates who are now being pressured. Folks can debate about strategies and tactics, just as they did in Randolph's day, just as they did when ACT UP activists interrupted "Al Gore for President" events to focus attention on the failure of American policymakers to respond to the crisis of AIDS in Africa.

This summer, #BlackLivesMatter activists have interrupted events and challenged both Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley to address issues of policing and racism that they argue must be a focus of the 2016 race.

O'Malley has since released a plan calling for an overhaul of the criminal justice system, in which he declared, "America's criminal justice system is badly in need of reform. For too long, our justice system has reinforced our country's cruel history of racism and economic inequality."

O'Malley, who was criticized for responding to a challenge from activists at the Netroots Nation gathering in Phoenix by saying "all lives matter," now incorporates the phrase "black lives matter" into his speeches. Citing his record of working to abolish the death penalty -- which his campaign white paper correctly identifies as a "racially biased and ineffective deterrent" -- the former governor told a National Urban League conference in late July, "Lots of people can talk about criminal justice reform. I have actually done it."

Sanders went to Texas immediately after the Netroots gathering spoke about the death of Sandra Bland in police custody. References to racial justice and police reforms have been amplified in his speeches. He has hired Symone Sanders, who has served as national youth chair of the Coalition on Juvenile Justice, as his press secretary; and she has hit the ground running with the message: "You know which candidate for president will shut down the private prison industry. You know which candidate will have the courage to fight unjust mandatory minimums and the death penalty."

Sanders has now incorporated into his core list of campaign proposals a Racial Justice platform that begins with the declaration that, "We must pursue policies that transform this country into a nation that affirms the value of its people of color. That starts with addressing the four central types of violence waged against black and brown Americans: physical, political, legal and economic."

The Sanders platform makes sweeping commitments to reforms aimed at "eradicating racism in this country," and it pulls no punches in explaining physical violence against black and brown Americans is "Perpetrated by the State." "Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Samuel DuBose. We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody. The chants are growing louder. People are angry and they have a right to be angry. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that this violence only affects those whose names have appeared on TV or in the newspaper. African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police."

Sanders, who was in the crowd when Randolph and King addressed the 1963 March on Washington, has as a senator spoken up about police violence and the neglect of urban communities and unemployed youth. This history, distant and recent, has led some Sanders supporters to gripe that he has been unfairly targeted for pressure. But this misses the point that his campaign has been made sharper and more focused by the pressure it has felt -- and the pressure it will continue to feel. The same goes for O'Malley. And so it should be for Hillary Clinton and others.

Politics, real politics as opposed to the game show that most of the media perpetuates, involves pressure and it is the response to that pressure that gives us the measure of candidates. No contender for the presidency has ever ended a campaign as he or she began. Campaigns are, and should be, critical pivot points in what A. Philip Randolph understood as the "continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship." To think otherwise is to accept a politics as usual that reinforces a status quo that needs, on so many issues, and on so many levels, to be shattered.

Copyright - 2014 -- distributed by Agence Global

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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