The Message From ‘Martin’ – Be An Agitator
Washington – Back in the 1960s, when I was covering Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis and other civil rights activists for The New York Times, I remember die-hard segregationists hurling an accusation at Dr. King that he was an “outside agitator.”
“You’re comin’ into our town,” they would bellow, whether it was Birmingham or Albany, Georgia or St. Augustine, Florida. “Things were quiet before you came to town. Our people were happy. But you come in here and stir up trouble. You’re agitating our people.”
They made it sound criminal – and in fact, they did arrest Dr. King several times.
Wondering how he would respond, I would go to those mass meetings that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference held in black churches all across the Deep South. And eventually, Dr. King would get around to the name-calling.
“Do You Know What an Agitator Is?”
“They call me an agitator,” he would cry out from the pulpit, his voice rising to put force and menace behind the indictment leveled against him. “Well, they’re right,” he came back defiantly. “I am an agitator.”
Then softening, he’d ask puckishly: “Do you know what an agitator is?” For a moment or two, he let the question hang in the air. People looked around at each other, uncertain.
“Well, look inside your washing machine,” he went on. “There’s an agitator in there.” And he would hold out his right arm, crooked at the elbow like a muscle man showing off his might with his fist thrust upward. And then Martin – that’s what his close friends called him – would twist his right fist sharply left-right, left-right, imitating the jerky motion of the shaft inside a clothes washer. “That agitator is in there, stirring up the water, knocking the dirt out of your clothes.”
“Well, that’s what I’m doing,” Dr. King declared, still jerking his fist left-right. And the audience, catching on, would start to giggle. “I’m agitating to knock the dirt out of our society – discrimination, Jim Crow, segregation, racism. So they’re right. I am agitating – agitating to clean up our democracy. That’s what all of us need to do – agitate for a better America, a freer America, a fairer America.”
From the audience came a roar of laughter, understanding and engagement.
Needed: A New Generation of Agitators
Dr. King’s message has direct meaning for us today. For if he were here now, he would be issuing a fresh call for a new generation of agitators – agitators of all ages from millennials to seniors – coming together to fix our flawed and wounded democracy.
He would be calling for a citizens movement to mobilize against the corrosive power of billionaires’ riches buying our elections; of corporations funding candidates with secret rivers of cash flowing through bogus “social welfare” groups; of political parties gerrymandering congressional districts to stack elections unfairly; of state legislatures repressing the vote by requiring voter ID and then shutting down drivers’ license offices in counties where blacks and other minorities predominate.
Citizen action is already on the move to restore voting rights. More than 680 towns and cities have joined 16 states in calling for an amendment to the US Constitution to overturn Citizens United and restore the power of Congress and the states to regulate campaign funding. In Washington State, a small army of citizen volunteers has just collected 337,000 signatures to call for a popular vote on a constitutional amendment next November. This will help ensure that everyone’s voice is heard and that everyone has an equal say in our democracy.
Give Voters More Choice – Outlaw Gerrymandering
Twenty-one states have taken action or are taking against partisan gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts, which stacks elections in favor of one party, deprives voters of genuine choice in elections, and disenfranchises political independents.
In Illinois this year, a broadly based citizens movement has mounted a petition drive to set up a voter referendum on an amendment to the state constitution that would bar partisan gerrymandering by the Democratic-dominated legislature.
In Maryland, Republican Governor Larry Hogan and several citizen lawsuits are challenging gerrymandering by the Democratic majority in the state legislature. Like reformers in other states, the governor wants the job of redistricting taken away from the legislature and turned over to an independent, bipartisan commission – a step already taken by Arizona, California and several other states.
In Virginia, the shoe is on the other foot: a movement led by OneVirginia2021 seeks to overturn the partisan gerrymandering by the Republican-dominated legislature. Polls show that roughly 70-75% of Virginians of all political loyalties favor gerrymander reform in their state.
In Florida, where more than 60% of the state’s voters passed an anti-gerrymander constitutional amendment in 2010, reformers have won the battle, giving voters fairer and more competitive election next fall thanks to the state supreme court’s decision striking down the partisan gerrymander by the Republican legislature.
Expose Dark Money, Use Public Funding
On another critical issue, exposing dark money in political campaigns, Montana this month has started enforcing a new law that requires all groups, including tax-exempt so-called social welfare organizations, to disclose all their funding sources for any electioneering communication that mentions a candidate by name. California, New York and Maryland have also moved to make campaign funding more transparent.
More than 20 states have acted to reduce the influence of special interests, either through public funding of campaigns or tax credits and matching funds for small donors. Some states fund only judicial candidates or a few statewide offices, but in Maine and Connecticut, more than 70% of state-level candidates use public funding.
So just as in the civil rights era, grass roots agitation for reform to heal our broken democracy is having a positive impact. But as Martin Luther King Jr. would have told us, this grass roots movement needs a much larger army of grass roots agitators if we are going to restore government of, by and for the people.