The Democracy Charter & The Fierce Urgency of Now By Jack O'Dell, Guest Commentator, 06/24/10

Note: The Democracy Charter, written by long-time civil rights, peace, and labor activist Jack O'Dell has been provided to by Michael Zweig, Director, Center for Study of Working Class Life, Department of Economics, State
University of New York, Stony Brook, NY.

Zweig writes the following about O'Dell:

Jack O'Dell first articulated the idea of a Democracy Charter for the United States in his plenary address at the How Class Works - 2004 conference at Stony Brook, It is based on the South African experience with their Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955 as a founding document of the ultimately successful struggle to abolish
apartheid. The current document is Jack's elaboration of those ideas and his call to action around them. He writes:

"One of the most common questions often expressed
in conversation [today] is, "What do we do now?"
One step we could take, which holds the potential
for fundamental changes in our country, would be to
take a page from the South African experience in
their long struggle to abolish apartheid. In 1955,
after many months of organizing and public meetings
across the country, a grassroots Congress of the
People was elected, and it assembled in an area
outside Johannesburg. It proclaimed and adopted a
Freedom Charter that served and inspired sustained
mass mobilization for a South Africa beyond

"A similar act of realignment and purpose for our
country, in the conditions prevailing here, would
be the adoption of a "Democracy Charter" as the
vision of the America we hope to create. Such a
vision, born of experience, would embody the hopes
and possibilities of this age in human history. A
Democracy Charter would be designed to unite our
movement and involve ever-broader sections of the
population in the struggle to achieve what we are
for, as our efforts to overcome continue to remove
obstacles, injustices, and deprivations. It would
be an intentional source of energy and shared
responsibility and enlightenment for rebuilding the
sense of community that empowers us to take on with
confidence the challenges that we will overcome.

"The Democracy Charter would have as its central
purpose bringing into the national dialogue the
millions in our country who now feel
disenfranchised and disrespected, or otherwise
ignored. This involvement will give all of us a
confident new identity, as social change agents."

We at the Center for Study of Working Class Life
are pleased to make available this analysis by Jack
O'Dell, and the pamphlet The Fierce Urgency of Now
that places Jack's work in the context of 20th
century U.S. social history.


2010, marks the fifty-fifth anniversary of three
significant events in the post World War II period. It
is the anniversary year of the Bandung conference, held
in Indonesia in 1955; the Congress of the People, held
in Kliptown, South Africa; and the Montgomery bus
boycott in Alabama.

Each of these was a seminal event in its own right. The
Bandung Conference gave birth to the Non-Aligned
Movement and established the prospect that the struggle
to abolish colonialism would be victorious. The meeting
in Kliptown, South Africa, adopted a Freedom Charter to
guide the movement to abolish apartheid at a time when
the apartheid system was being tightened by repressive
measures. And the Montgomery bus boycott shifted the
center of grassroots mass action to the Southern
heartland of segregation and set into motion an example
that would inspire the freedom movement across the
country in our struggle to abolish institutional

Each of these events, in one way or another, has
informed our activism in the movement, whatever the
moment we entered into involvement. Because these
events in 1955 occurred at the height of the Cold War
abroad and Cold War McCarthyism at home, they carry the
fundamental lesson: even in the darkest periods, the
people have the power to create the light that
illuminates our path to more hopeful times.

Today these events remind us of the achievements that
have been made, as well as the unfinished agenda of
concerns that continue to challenge us. Today, even as
the world observes, in memory, the ending of the Second
World War and the victory over Fascism, we are all at
the same time witness to the martyrdom of the cities of
Iraq by an unjustified, unprovoked U.S.-led military
invasion of that small country. We are all witness to
the tragedy of the growing impoverishment taking place
in our own country among the unemployed, the homeless,
those trying desperately to hang onto their jobs with
little or no hope. We are all witness to the breaking
up of the sense of community that so many feel. Our
movement strains to keep up the creative energy of
protest against these injustices, often even in the
face of assaults on the right to peacefully assemble,
frustration with the election process, and other
experiences. These add up to "a long train of abuses"
that have become part of everyday life.

One of the most common questions often expressed in
conversation is, "What do we do now?" One step we could
take, which holds the potential for fundamental changes
in our country, would be to take a page from the South
African experience in their long struggle to abolish
apartheid. In 1955, after many months of organizing and
public meetings across the country, a grassroots
Congress of the People was elected, and it assembled in
an area outside Johannesburg. It proclaimed and adopted
a Freedom Charter that served and inspired sustained
mass mobilization for a South Africa beyond apartheid.

A similar act of realignment and purpose for our
country, in the conditions prevailing here, would be
the adoption of a "Democracy Charter" as the vision of
the America we hope to create. Such a vision, born of
experience, would embody the hopes and possibilities of
this age in human history. A Democracy Charter would be
designed to unite our movement and involve ever-broader
sections of the population in the struggle to achieve
what we are for, as our efforts to overcome continue to
remove obstacles, injustices, and deprivations. It
would be an intentional source of energy and shared
responsibility and enlightenment for rebuilding the
sense of community that empowers us to take on with
confidence the challenges that we will overcome. The
Democracy Charter would have as its central purpose
bringing into the national dialogue the millions in our
country who now feel disenfranchised and disrespected,
or otherwise ignored. This involvement will give all of
us a confident new identity, as social change agents.

The time is ripe for us, the People of the United
States, in all our multicultural diversity and breadth
of experience, to adopt a Democracy Charter that brings
together as part of a shared vision all of the
dimensions of the civilizational crisis that are now
being actively addressed, on a limited scale, by one or
another organization.

The essential purpose of such a charter is the
expansion of democracy and fundamental human rights in
our country. Therefore, the historical point of
reference of the Democracy Charter is our nation's Bill
of Rights and the subsequent Amendments, won over
generations of struggle to enshrine them in the U.S.
Constitution. In the U.S. American experience,
unyielding resistance to any and all efforts to weaken
the Bill of Rights is an essential condition for the
transition from formal democracy to a society of
substantive democracy. At the very heart of the
unfolding struggle for substantive democracy today are
the issues of race, class, and gender, in relation to
power and decision-making. This has been the
fundamental reality since the birth of this Republic.

To briefly review this historical point, the U.S. was
the first of a number of communities of European
settler colonialism in the hemisphere of the Americas
to break with its "mother" country. The architects of
the new state then rapidly proceeded to structure their
own "made in U.S.A." mechanisms of exploitation and
wealth accumulation. During the first century
following its Declaration of Independence, this
structure put into place and rested upon four pillars:
First, the seizure of lands held by Native Americans
and the privatization of this property, accompanied by
the dismantling of the centuries-old social
organization of these original inhabitants; second, the
consolidation and expansion of the system of
enslavement of Africans, as an economic institution
inherited from years of British rule and codified into
law in the new U.S. Constitution (a kind of affirmative
action to the benefit of the slave owners); third, the
military seizure and annexation, in the War of
1846-1848, of a land area amounting to one third of the
Mexican Republic; and fourth, the exploitation of a
wage-labor working class among the new immigrant
population brought in primarily from northern Europe,
with the notable exception of Chinese workers, who were
admitted for long enough to help complete the railroad
to the West Coast, then denied further entry through
the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress. The
position of women in this paradigm is self-evident,
especially since they were denied the formal democratic
right to vote until 1919. These historical
circumstances, taken together with the success of the
American Revolution itself in breaking free of the
British Empire, provided both the material conditions
and the political power base for the economic royalists
of the new republic to shape and promote the ideology
of "American exceptionalism" as a major component in
U.S. culture. Further, the much-valued achievements of
formal democracy as exemplified by the Bill of Rights
reveal their limitations in daily life experience.
Consequently the need is urgent to take up the banner
of struggle for substantive democracy and empower this

The following points suggest primary items for
inclusion in a proposed Democracy Charter.

I. A national commitment to end homelessness during
this next decade.

Eighty percent of the homeless are women and people of
color, more often than not, families with children.
Twelve million people pay more than fifty percent of
their monthly income for either rent or mortgage, often
for substandard housing -- such is the shortage of
affordable housing. Relief to these twelve million and
the uncounted numbers of homeless beyond them would
also create jobs and the basis for expanding job skills
training in the construction and other industries.

Rising unemployment and the millions of families made
economically insecure by the subprime mortgage racket
may prove to be a set of circumstances of long-term
duration. Democracy, in this instance, requires the
emergence of nonviolent organized mass actions to stop
the evictions, neighborhood by neighborhood, and enable
people to stay in their homes while new mortgage terms
are negotiated. This is the indispensable ingredient in
this situation. Such community activity should be
accompanied by full use of the Legal Services
Corporation, which is legally required to assist
homeowners in preventing evictions but should also be
empowered to bring class action suits against those
insurance, bank, and real estate corporations that have
created this subprime problem.

II. A national commitment to an economy of full
employment, at socially useful jobs, and a livable wage
as public policy.

In the late 1970s, Congress passed the Humphrey-Hawkins
bill, which set a national goal of full employment: the
maximum allowable unemployment was to be 4 percent.
Even this goal has largely been ignored as public
policy and rarely achieved; and 4 percent unemployment
is still too high. Yet in some of our largest urban
centers, for example, unemployment among African
American men is over 40 percent. Official propaganda in
times of recession praising a "jobless recovery" is a
cover-up for long- term depression and stagnation as the
economic reality. The Humphrey-Hawkins Bill must be
revived as an indispensable standard point of reference
in gaining an accurate measurement of the real state of
the economy. It should be applied across the board to measure
unemployment among women heads of households and the
real conditions of communities of color.

Democracy in the workplace is an essential part of the
effort at rebuilding our communities that have in so
many places been shattered by plant closings,
unemployment, wage stagnation, and wage cuts. Workers
are entitled to have a voice in determining their
working conditions, health and safety, and hours on the
job as well as determining their share of the profits
derived from their labor. These standards are an
indispensable part of a robust democracy.

Workers in agriculture and domestic service are an
integral part of the working class community, and that
reality must be respected in the making of public

Today, the many grassroots state and local movements
are the standard bearers setting the pace for the
demand for jobs for all who seek them. Recognition of
workers' inalienable right to self-organization is one
way of guaranteeing that the struggle for these goals
is sustained.

III. The right to an environment free of bigotry,
violence, and intolerance as an expression of our
nation's irreversible commitment to human rights,
including full recognition of reproductive rights and
the rights of gays and lesbians.

The twentieth century has witnessed landmark Supreme
Court decisions, including Roe vs. Wade (1973),
affirming the reproductive rights of women, and Brown
vs. Board of Education (1954), affirming the right of
African American children to equal access to education
in the public schools, free of state-imposed racial
segregation. Despite the significant contributions
these decisions have made to the moral progress of the
nation, they continue to be the subject of sustained
attack in a variety of forms, primarily coming from the
conservative right, some groups striving to assert
biblical support for their positions. This is often
combined with relentless organized efforts to consign
gays and lesbians to an outcast status in U.S. society,
in violation of their basic human rights.

None of this is acceptable to a society committed to
preserving and improving its democracy.

A principled defense and active protection of the
entire fabric of human rights as an indivisible whole
is the real basis for guaranteeing respect for all.

IV. The doors of learning open to all, from early
childhood education through college, as a public trust
and another dimension of human rights.

This is for our time the next step in the "Economic
Bill of Rights" proposed by President Roosevelt in 1944
as public policy, but abandoned after his death and the
deliberate creation of Cold War politics. The National
Education Association estimated in 2002 that the
nation's public schools could be put into Grade A
physical condition for an investment of about 380
billion dollars. Our nation spent almost half that
amount on the war on Iraq in its first year, and the
accumulated cost is still rising, quite aside from the
moral deficit it so markedly represents. The quality of
our public school educational system is not a "states'
rights" issue. It is an issue of paramount importance
in shaping the quality of life and character of the
United States as a democracy. All of us have a stake in
putting an end to the common experience we share that
every time there is an economic crisis and budget cuts
are called for, the first things scrapped in our public
schools are art, music, recreational sports, and field
trips. These are character-building school subjects and
are among the essentials of a quality education.

As for postsecondary education, we must never forget
that tens of thousands of our young people who
volunteer for the Armed Forces are not seeking an
opportunity to go to war or be trained to kill. They
are looking for an opportunity to go to college and
improve their lives. This is an investment in our
nation's future.

A public education system that prepared youngsters to
begin formal learning, then supported them as far as
their ability and inclination took them, would
strengthen our country's economic position and civil

A major contribution towards substantive democracy
would be for the U.S. to become officially bilingual,
as a nation, in English and Spanish. As one benefit,
national bilingualism would greatly enrich our
knowledge of the hemisphere in which we live and help
us "overcome" much of the national chauvinism which
weakens the democratic character of U.S. life.

V. A new foreign and military policy as an expression
of our nation's character.

This means a foreign policy of peace, cooperation with
our neighbors throughout the hemisphere of the
Americas, and mutual respect that guarantees the future
of the planet as our shared home. The "Superpower" or
"Lone Superpower" rhetoric of the Cold War is without
merit as an operational concept in the conduct of
foreign policy. It promotes racism and national
arrogance, accompanied by a false sense of national
security. It helps institutionalize bloated, wasteful
military budgets as normal; pollutes and distorts the
practices of government diplomacy; and predictably
depletes our reserves of moral capital in the world.

Nothing underscores the latter cluster of circumstances
more clearly than the role played by the U.S. in
denying the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian
people over decades, and the U.S.-led or -sponsored
military aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, and
Colombia today. These harsh truths have been amply
documented, as has the record of calculated deception
of the public here at home which usually accompanies
these activities -- regardless of which "major
political party" is in power. This abuse of power
constitutes a monumental example of unaccountable
government. Public awareness of U.S. overseas
activities -- both corporate and political -- and their
effects has been steadily growing. This is evidenced in
our country's very active anti-war movement, which is
increasingly putting emphasis on creating a peace
culture, as an antidote to the war culture so pervasive
in the U.S. Nevertheless, foreign and military policy
is an area of the people's business that requires a
quantum leap in public awareness and involvement, in
order that a progressive content be given to our
relations with the rest of the world. Experience has
shown that such a transformation is not only a moral
imperative; it is absolutely essential to improving
conditions here at home.

A new foreign and military policy means a new kind of
defense budget, one in harmony with other domestic
goals, not one designed to enrich the biggest corporate
"defense" contractors and their stockholders, while the
public pays the bill. A new foreign and military policy
also means that no longer will the U.S. government
produce, use, or sell weapons -- such as land mines,
cluster bombs, depleted uranium shells, or Agent Orange
-- that destroy the environment in which living beings
have to survive. The Vietnamese people are still
suffering from the catastrophic effects of these
weapons used against them.

A new foreign and military policy means getting our
representatives in Congress to undertake the closing of
all of the estimated 700 US military bases now
operating on foreign soil -- and to secure the closing
of these bases "with all deliberate speed." In this
regard, particular attention should be given to
restoring to the peoples of the islands of Guam (South
Pacific) and Diego Garcia (Indian Ocean) the right to
return to their traditional lands, from which they were
forcibly removed to make way for the construction of
military bases. This aggressive militarism is one of
the new forms in which the old colonialism is being
revived. Our movement has significant expertise in the
area of developing more principled foreign policy, as
represented, for example, by the work over many decades
carried out by the American Friends Service Committee.
Since our nation led the world into the era of nuclear
weapons, we should lead the world by example out of
that era by renouncing the possession of nuclear
weapons and taking concrete steps to eliminate the U.S.
stockpile of nuclear weapons, as a matter of principle.
The continued production of these weapons of terror is
neither morally justified nor socially useful economic
activity. It contributes to neither the real wealth nor
the well-being of society, while it uses up
nonrenewable resources that could otherwise benefit our
country. Further, the use of these terrible weapons
inflicts long-term damage on other countries and on our
ability to function as a member of the worldwide
community of nations. We, the people of the United
States, can end this!

In recent years, important developments on the world
scene have marked the emergence of a very active
leadership and initiatives for peace and democracy
coming from our neighbors in the southern hemisphere.
The international conference on racism in Durban, the
World Social Forum held in central Africa (2006), and
the world conference on climate change hosted by
Bolivia in 2010 exemplify such initiatives. This
emerging leadership draws together centers of mass
activity representing the voices of indigenous peoples,
nations, and communities that have suffered severely
from both colonialism and the newer forms of corporate
exploitation. It has taken up the challenge of linking
the struggle for democracy with the struggle for the
preservation of our common home, the planet Earth. This
points in a new direction that is absolutely essential
for this period in history. It demonstrates a social
consciousness that embraces the challenges of our time,
and our struggle for a robust democracy in the United
States will be greatly enhanced by our relation to
these currents of thought and action.

VI. Universal health insurance coverage (single-payer

The cost of worker contributions to health care
premiums in industry-sponsored plans has tripled since
1988. That tens of millions of people have either no
health insurance at all or inadequate insurance to
cover catastrophic illness is well known. In recent
years, lack of adequate health insurance has become a
major source of family financial insecurity, often
leading to bankruptcy. As a nation, we in America spend
$400 billion a year on health insurance paperwork, much
of it designed to eliminate patients from eligibility
for benefits. At this writing, health care costs are
rising three times as fast as wages. An estimated
100,000 people die every year from illnesses contracted
while in the hospital as patients, and the US has the
lowest life expectancy of any of the wealthy
industrialized countries in the Western world.

A system in which the government paid expenses
necessary to cure illnesses and injuries and also took
responsibility for promoting practices that help
maintain good health would improve our country's
international standing in measures of life expectancy
and productivity. It would also remove the unfairness
and pathology of a health care system in which prices
are based upon satisfying corporate greed and the
concerns of private investors, while the quality of
care is based upon the patient's ability to pay.

The United States has an outstanding tradition of
public service institutions. These are represented, in
part, by the public land-grant colleges authorized by
Congress at the end of the Civil War; the system of
public health clinics, whose professionals provide
inoculations for communicable diseases like diphtheria
and measles; the neighborhood public libraries all
across the country that are centers for quiet reading
and relaxation and often provide space for community
meetings; and our outstanding National Parks Service,
which has recently celebrated its centennial year.
These are among the precedents that give us full
confidence in the advocacy of a universal health
insurance system, single-payer model.

VII. A Social Security system with firm and
undiminished integrity.

Our present Social Security system is both a shared
commitment to contribute during our employed years and
a universal benefit we share in our retirement years.
It is our nation's premier anti-poverty program,
protecting more young people as beneficiaries than does
current "welfare," in its "reformed" state. Without
Social Security, half of all women over 65 would fall
into poverty. One major way to strengthen this
important institution, put in place during the years of
Roosevelt's New Deal, would be to tighten federal
regulatory control so that the Social Security Trust
Fund could not be raided to finance "off-budget" wars.
(Yearly surpluses in the Trust Fund were used by
President Lyndon Johnson, for instance, to finance the
early years of the war in Vietnam.)

VIII. A farm economy restructured to rest on family and
cooperative enterprise.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is a major problem
area needing restructuring for the renewal of our
democracy. In the early decades of the 20th century,
family farming was the major form of property ownership
among Americans, including African Americans in the
South. Today, African Americans own less than 2 percent
of farms. Millions of people in our country are
skilled, professional farmers. They should not be
subjected to the greed and unbridled power of the
corporate monopolies in agriculture and the retail
market. Everyone will benefit if the traditional family
farm, cooperatives, and the new urban community food
gardens and farmers markets become once again the
primary source of food production.

IX. A prison system accountable to the public for
fulfilling its charge as a center for rehabilitation.

The responsibility of the penal system is to guide the
rehabilitation of incarcerated people so that, with the
help of families, neighbors, and social service
agencies, they can renew their place in the community.
The existence of a "prison-industrial complex" in our
country is a fundamental violation of the social
purpose of the prison system in a democratic society.
As for the operation of U.S. prisons in other
countries, this is an affront to the sovereignty of
such countries and a disgrace to our own. All such
institutions should be permanently closed as a matter
of public policy, and the penal system should be
redesigned to carry out its social purpose.

X. Restoration, preservation, and protection of the
quality of our natural environment as a vital social
inheritance for future generations to use and enjoy.

Reversing the present pattern of pollution and
degradation requires promoting and expanding community
activities, as well as public works projects, that
encourage a culture of social responsibility towards
keeping our rivers, lakes, parks, and other
environmental gifts in healthy condition. Our country
has a long-term interest in becoming one of the leaders
in worldwide efforts to stop contributing to global
warming and to protect from harm our common home, this

XI. Expanded public ownership and management of
resources strategic to the health of our nation's

Such strategic resources include oil, gas, and other
sources of energy, as well as public transportation.
Stricter federal and state regulation against pollution
and mismanagement would accompany the growth in public
ownership. Louisiana, with its "cancer alley" created
by the reckless disregard of the petrochemical industry
for public health concerns, makes the case for public
ownership and accountability. The Tennessee Valley
Authority (TVA) offers one model even as it currently
undergoes steady attack from the coal-power lobby.

XII. Statehood for the District of Columbia as the
centerpiece of commitment to long-overdue electoral

The guarantee that every vote will be counted is an
inseparable part of the right to vote. The assault on
the voting system itself, which we and the world
witnessed in Florida, Ohio, and other states in two
successive Presidential elections, is now recognized as
a nationwide problem of scandalous proportions. Because
this problem remains unrepaired, we face yet another
Congressional election in which defects in the voting
process could determine the results. As long as we
allow this situation to continue, our elections are far
less representative of democracy than those held in
most Western industrialized countries. The absence of
voting members of the Senate and House of
Representatives for the citizens of the nation's
capital is a conspicuous example of this lack of
democracy. The principle of fair voter access and
accurate, accountable vote tabulation should be visibly
maintained, and should be reinforced by the
introduction of a system of proportional representation
in all elections where applicable.

XIII. The air waves maintained as national public

We affirm this principle upon which the Federal
Communications Commission was founded, as a regulatory
agency, during the New Deal period: "The air waves are
the property of the American people." The democracy
that this principle embodies has been hijacked and
distorted by the hucksters of marketplace television
and the demagogues of hate-radio. The consolidation of
corporate power in these areas -- together with their
counterpart, the film industry -- denies the public's
right to be informed, limits public access to a
violence-free culture, and confines the exercise of
artistic creativity.

The media must be responsible to their audience, not to
advertisers or powerful pressure groups. We affirm the
principle of public airwave ownership as indispensable
to the struggle for achievement of a substantive
democracy in our country, especially in this age of
global communications and the bright possibilities they

Towards the Second Reconstruction

The electoral coalition which brought victory to the
American people in the election of President Barack
Obama has the capacity to become a Movement, and indeed
it has a mandate of history to do so. What the people
of the United States, in a clear majority, elected was
not only an affirmation of our best hopes for the
future: it is important to note that it also closed the
door, momentarily, to a bid for power by a much darker
spirit in the American experience. This magnificent
moment is ours to preserve and extend, but it will not
remain so without our concerted and sustained attention
and social change activism guided by both past and
present experiences.

These thirteen points, with the abbreviated comments
that accompany them, are meant essentially as a
framework for incorporating other vital issues of
concern to such a Charter. There is no order of
priority herein, but an attempt to present a picture
that will enable us to view these vital issues as a
body in their interconnectedness, rather than just
separately. To further elaborate and project remedies
applicable is the purpose for movement-building, as a
sustaining force.

The Charter proposal is designed to acknowledge and
enhance the effective work that is already being done
in many areas of Movement activity. When harnessed to
the grassroots organizing tradition, the Democracy
Charter can bring new energy that is transformational
in its possibilities for social change in our nation.
It must become a full part of the "good news" that
involves and inspires our artists, poets, and creators
in all cultural media to give of their talents
spreading this message of hope and new possibilities.

Because of its perspective of emphasis on our
Movement's goals and objectives, the Charter is an
invitation that seeks to engage a different kind of
national conversation - one that is positive and
purposeful in the sharing of experiences and free of
the tone that too often discourages participation. This
is a great moment for all of us, as we confidently take
up the challenge to create a vision, shared with the
people all around us, that embodies "Freedom from Fear"
and expands the Movement/community, built by the people
all around us, as they actively embrace the ideas of
the Charter they have created and proceed to translate
these hope into constructive actions.

The common ingredients in all this liberating work are
integrity and love.

The Democracy Charter seeks to penetrate the depths of
what Dr. Martin Luther King more than forty years ago
called "the deeper malady that afflicts the American
spirit, of which Vietnam is but a symptom" (Riverside
Church speech, April 4, 1967). This malady which Dr.
King identified has become in our lifetime a contagion
the symptoms of which are all around us.

Recognizing and accepting this challenge is the key to
the success of all of our collective efforts to
transform our nation into a peaceful, socially
conscious democracy.

In this spirit, we shall overcome!

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