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We Need Activists to Make Politicians Better

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Reprinted from The Nation

A. Philip Randolph taught us that pressuring candidates and presidents is necessary -- for them and for movements.

From youtube.com/watch?v=2HDx4kRY3YM: Bernie Sanders Interrupted at Seattle Rally by Black Lives Matter Protesters
Bernie Sanders Interrupted at Seattle Rally by Black Lives Matter Protesters
(Image by YouTube)
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It is good for movements to put pressure on presidential candidates to do the right thing. I did not learn this from a candidate or from a president, of course. I learned this from the man I have always understood as the most steadily radical and steadily successful political actor of the American 20th century: A. Philip Randolph.

Those who are uneasy with the pressure that activists are bringing to bear on presidential candidates in the already intense 2016 race would do well to remember the strategies and the successes of Randolph, the labor leader who for the better part of 50 years recognized every campaign and every presidential invitation as an opportunity to demand racial justice and economic equality.

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When #BlackLivesMatter activists challenge a Bernie Sanders or a Martin O'Malley, when climate-change activists challenge a Hillary Clinton, when campaigners against bloated military budgets challenge all the candidates, they do not merely draw attention to vital issues. They have the potential to make candidates and campaigns -- and our politics -- better.

This is the lesson Randolph taught, along with the lesson that, while it is important to celebrate progress and to recognize allies, activists have a responsibility to keep the pressure on.

"Justice is never given; it is exacted and the struggle must be continuous for freedom is never a final fact, but a continuing evolving process to higher and higher levels of human, social, economic, political and religious relationship," said Randolph, who in his lifetime became an expert at exacting justice, and at evolving candidates and presidents to higher levels of engagement with the civil rights struggle.

The candidates and presidents often despised the pressure, and their supporters often decried Randolph for upsetting the best-laid plans of contenders and policymakers. But they would eventually thank Randolph -- awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom among other honors -- because they knew he had made them better than they would have been without the pressure.

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