I’m looking at you, Barack and Joe. From Howard Zinn’s speech on “The Southern Influence in Politics” (1963)
When people say, and they count them up, “Kennedy has done more for civil rights than any other president… Allright, but don’t bother me with that. People who keep scorecards don’t really know what’s happening in the world. And the point is not how much has been done – the point is how much has to be done and the point is how much can be done, which isn’t being done.
How much power does Kennedy have which he has not utilized?
Here’s a man who is in control of the most fantastic aggregate of power that any nation has ever held in the history of the world and he can’t do anything with it to protect one or two people in a little town in Mississippi. This is incredible. You see? Surprise. No, it’s not Kennedy, it goes beyond Kennedy and it goes, I think, to our national history and to our national political structure, and to our values. It’s much more deep-rooted than that. And, I suppose the problem is that basically we’ve always – even when we’ve been fairly liberal at times – it’s been a white liberalism. Racism has been dominant in our history and our actions throughout.
What I’m really arguing about, I think, is that we’ve got to look at our national political structure and we’ve got to recognize that there is something about the national political structure itself – no matter who is in power – Democrats or Republicans, there’s something about this which gets in the way of solving the basic human problems that have to be solved in our time. This is important because here we have a whole bunch of people who are going out registering people to vote. Doing a great job. And what do you do when you walk up to someone and say “I think you ought to register.” What do you tell these people? Do you tell them, “I want you to register to vote because…” – that, really, is all that’s missing. It’s all that’s needed. “You see we have a beautiful, working, democratic, mechanism here, the only problem is that you are left out of it. If you will just enter this beautiful, democratic, mechanism, and join in it, you will then be able to do the things you want to do.”Well, I don’t think that’s an honest statement. I don’t think this is true. I think it would be truer to say, “if you register, and if you vote, you will then have as much power as the rest of us. Which is very little.”
I’m not singling out the American democratic system against other systems. I’m not saying our system is worse than other systems – I’m just saying it’s not that much better. And I mean this for this reason: any mammoth social organization in the 20th century places huge obstacles between people’s needs and power. And this is as true of the United States as of any other huge political mechanism in the world. We sort of fool ourselves – we read the constitution, we recite everything about the separation of powers, and pluralism and three houses of congress, and voting, and so on. And everything, on paper, looks good. But when you get down to it, there is something fundamentally wrong in that we cannot translate what people need into what is done at the top of this political mechanism.
A political structure – any political structure – exists in order to make sure (and this is what we set it up for) – we set it up to make sure that nobody takes advantage of anybody else. Because, if we didn’t have a political structure we assume that people would ride roughshod over other people. So we set up a political structure to defend us against this. We set it up supposedly so it will prevent people from exploiting others – prevent some people from getting very rich and keeping other people very poor. To prevent some people from holding all power and denying power to others. To prevent people from discriminating against other people for irrational reasons. And we also set up a political structure to keep the peace, because this is important to people: they don’t want to die. On every one of these counts, most political structures in the world, have failed. And, on every one of these counts, the American political structure today, in 1963 is failing.
It is certainly failing in the area of equality. This I don’t have to talk about. It’s also failing in another very important area – in the area of making sure that the wealth of this country, which is incredible, does not get siphoned off into a relatively few hands, and is not kept away from millions and millions of people. In the last year or so, poverty has been discovered in America. I mean that. It’s really been discovered. People have suddenly begun to write about the poor. They’ve been here all this time, they’ve been all around us – like the negro has been around us – he can be right there, but you don’t see him. Ellison wrote about the Invisible Man. Well the invisible man not only applies to the negro, it applies to the poor in America. We find that there are about eight and one half million people in America – eight and one half million families – about forty million people, who earn about $2,000/year. But the picture we present to the world, and often to ourselves, is of an affluent society – everybody is just doing great. Everybody is spending money, going here, going there, living it up.
Forty million people, under $2,000/year. [In a moment of serendipity, a baby in the audience lets out a loud, extended bleat and there’s some chuckling] The statistics – well, look at the concentration of wealth, on the other hand, 1% of the population, 1% of the families – several hundred thousand families – own 25% of all the money, stocks, bonds, real estate – all of the tangible assets in the country. And furthermore, this hasn’t changed much over the years. There has been practically no change in the distribution of wealth in the United States in the last thirty or forty years although we like to think that it has taken place.
This is power.
I love his observation about Kennedy’s non-use of the power that he had, when he had it. It reminds me of someone else. It also cautions me against believing in Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, et al, who promise change that I think they are powerless to enact. Was Obama just a heartless cynical bastard who came up with “Hope and Change” as a marketing slogan? Or did he believe it for a little while until he got into office and the hard realities of the system made him realize he’d be a one-term president if he tried to do anything? I.e.: he loved power more than he loved hope and change. Remember: Joe Biden’s main selling point was that he was Obama’s spare tire – a double do-nothing. He’d sure make a great president wouldn’t he?