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Yesterday was the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, the third of four assassinations in fewer than five years of inspiring progressive leaders. Those years were the strangest combination of hope, progress, joy, grief, bitterness, and despair than any other time in American history. Those five years gave us the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the School Lunch program, Legal Services; and they gave us 500,000 troops in the most pointless and wrongheaded war in our history, and all the bitter divisions that resulted. They gave us the biggest landslide a progressive Democrat ever won for President, and the election of a dark-souled race baiting conservative who would be forced from office for blatant violations of the law. It brought us the rise of the modern feminist movement, the flowering of the biggest student movement in our history, and the ugliest reactionary backlash imaginable. The contradictions and battles of those intense years have never left us.
Although hopefully with less violence, this moment in history is feeling like it has much of the same drama and contradictions, hope and bitterness, change and backlash. We elect as President a mixed-race man with an African immigrant father and a Muslim African name; we finally pass a comprehensive health care reform bill that puts us much closer to a system of universal coverage; we make the biggest investments ever in green jobs, public education, universal broadband, and a variety of other public programs; in spite of reformers being outspent more than 500-1, we passed a bill that has begun to re-regulate the financial industry. At the same time, we see the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and a bipartisan political class that still seems locked into conventional views on the unalloyed virtues of the free market; a vicious backlash and the coming to power of the most extreme conservative movement since the Social Darwinists in the 1880s; we see far too much compromise and capitulation to the corporate powers that be by the Democratic establishment; and with the Ryan budget, we see the most dangerous and far reaching attack on the fundamental gains of the 1900s — especially Medicare and Medicaid, which he wants to not only radically slash but totally destroy by his “restructuring” — that we have ever seen; we see the most radical attacks on the very idea of unions that we have seen since the flowering of the modern labor movement in the 1930s.
What is most fascinating about the contradictory times we are living in is that both the extremist right-wing movement and the progressive movement are taking to the streets to an unprecedented level. We all saw the tea party movement capture the frame over the last two years, but progressives are now fighting back. Yesterday, on the anniversary of King’s death, our side took to the streets once again. There were more than 1,000 events yesterday — 1,000! — around this great country. People are fighting back in — to paraphrase Dr. King — every state and every city, every village and every hamlet, every mountain and every hill and every molehill of our great nation.