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Activist Kali Akuno and historian Paul Le Blanc discuss the abandoned Freedom Budget of the Civil Rights Movement and how it could be revived to address race and class disparities

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

The Freedom Budget for All Americans–you’ve probably never heard of it, but it was conceived by civil rights and labor leaders during the 1960s black freedom struggle. Some even argue that the civil rights movement was left incomplete by not being able to seriously address economic equality, which this budget did. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. called economic equality genuine equality. He said, quote, “For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

Now joining us to talk about the significance of this Freedom Budget and a new freedom budget that’s been proposed are our two guests.

Joining us from Jackson, Mississippi, is Kali Akuno. Kali was the coordinator of special projects and external funding for the late mayor Chokwe Lumumba. Currently, Kali is devoting his time to Cooperation Jackson, building a solidarity economy.

Also joining us, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Paul LeBlanc. Paul is a professor of history at LaRoche College. And with Michael Yates. He’s the co-author of the study A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of Civil Rights Movement and the Struggle for Economic Justice Today.

Thank you both, gentlemen, for joining us.


DESVARIEUX: So, Paul, let’s start off with you. You’ve sort of proposed a new freedom budget. What should be the objectives of this new freedom budget? And in whose interests would it serve?

PAUL LEBLANC, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, LA ROCHE COLLEGE: Well, it’s the same objectives as the old Freedom Budget that was put forward by some of the central leaders of the civil rights movement, the people who organized the 1963 March on Washington, where A. Philip Randolph, a African-American trade unionist, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr. And all of these folks were also involved in putting forward the Freedom Budget for all Americans.

What they saw was that the Jim Crow system that in political and social ways was keeping African-Americans down by law was likely to be overturned. But as you pointed out in the quote from King, there were still economic inequalities. We talked about these previously–twice as many blacks as whites living in poverty, twice as many blacks as whites being unemployed, income levels among blacks overall generally being half that of whites. How could that be overcome?

And the conclusion that they came to was poverty is hurting everyone. Unemployment is hurting everyone. Inadequate wages and incomes are hurting everyone. Even though blacks are hit twice as hard, many whites are being hit too. And the fact that blacks are being pushed down then helps to push whites down. So what they argued was, well, what King called a struggle for an interracial movement of the poor. That’s what the Poor People’s campaign was about. And that’s what the Freedom Budget was about, too, linking poor–struggles of poor people of all races and the civil rights movement and the labor movement and all forces that believed in economic justice and racial justice and human rights. So this would–what they mapped out was something that would eliminate poverty, eliminate unemployment within a ten-year period, at the same time creating more and more jobs to provide decent education, decent health care, redevelop transportation and communication systems, more and more opportunities for more and more people. So this would be beneficial to everyone. And at the same time, it would wipe out this disparity, this racial disparity, and it would create alliances for the struggle for African-American rights.

DESVARIEUX: So in that same spirit, Paul, you came up with a new freedom budget. What did it include specifically?

LEBLANC: Well, everything that I just said. But at the same time–and my co-author, Michael Yates, is a professional economist. So what he did was he looked at the economy of the 1960s and looked at the economy today, and there have been big changes, so that in order to achieve those goals, it’s still possible to achieve those goals, but there would have to be a greater power shift, a greater economic power shift. It can’t be the case that the rich who’ve gotten so rich, so much more rich over the past 30, 40, 50 years, that that can be allowed to stand. There needs to be a redistribution. As was said by Kali previously, this needs to be brought about by a mass movement, by more and more people joining to make this so.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Kali, I want to turn to you and discuss that mass movement. What role does the community really play in changing this power shift, as Paul mentioned? And what can they do specifically?

AKUNO: It has to start with the community. There are change agents, there are catalysts, you know, community organizers, [organic intellectuals (?)] that are there that have to kind of take up this call and this mantle and begin the doorknocking, going to community meetings, creating community forums and events to do the type of education and mobilization work. But if the community in all this broad diversity is not really brought to bear to make certain economic demands and to make certain policy shifts called for on a certain level, things are not going to move. This is not a movement that can be kind of orchestrated or kind of called for from on high, not if we really expected to have the transformative effects that we really want when we know that they’re really needed. So this can’t move without the community. I think that’s a central theme that all the organizers and all the folks who are interested in social justice who are listening to this really have to take, you know, I think, great heed to. And it’s going to require a lot more than just kind of mobilization and mobilization tactics, you know, calling people out for rallies and demonstrations. That’s part of what we have to do.

But on a deeper issue, we have to get ourselves organized to build the capacity to sustain the struggle and to be involved in some of the things that we’re trying to develop here in Jackson, our own kind of solidarity economy, economic democracy, where there’s direct exchange, there’s building local equity, there’s building direct worker ownership over different enterprises, over different economic activities. But it has to be not just one or two; there has to be a groundswell of this coming from all the different sectors of the working class, I think, to really move this agenda forward down the road.

And some of the things that we have been really trying to marry it with is just not just a call for economic democracy, but it’s also marrying that call with the human rights framework and articulating that the economic, social, and cultural rights, which are not generally protected or enshrined in anything within the United States, for a lot of reasons we can get into perhaps another time, but those have to really be enshrined as rights in what we have to work for, to struggle for as a right, so that people have the right to water, they have the right to food, they have the right to health care, they have the right to housing. These are some fundamental things that we have to work to get the movement to understand so that there is this redistribution that Paul was talking about. You know, that’s the basis of if it. You know, if it’s not necessarily enshrined in our minds and then not necessarily enshrined in a code of rights or in a body of rights, then we kind of miss out on compromises as to things that put, basically, profit over people, when the equation has to be reversed, ultimately, putting people over profits.

DESVARIEUX: Paul, what are some specific examples of programs that you like to see enacted? And do you have any examples of things that actually work?

LEBLANC: Well, there’s a struggle that’s taking place in Pittsburgh around public transit. Public transit works. It has worked in this city, and it was attacked and cut back, and they tried to gut it and privatize it. But we know that modern urban areas need good mass transit systems, and we have been able to mobilize a struggle here of various communities to stop the cuts and to push for a restoration of mass transit. That’s a very simple thing. But that’s–if people join together to push for that, they can acquire the things too.

Health care–we know that in other countries, in other societies, there are much better health care systems than we have in the United States, including so-called Obamacare, which is totally inadequate compared to what the need is. So I’d like to see public facilities, public health, public health care, public transit, strengthening public education, as opposed to undermining it and gutting it, all of these kinds of things we know have worked in the past. If you defund them and underfund them and undermine them, which has been the case with the neoliberal and austerity assaults, led by the superrich, then they don’t work. But if we join together, we the working class, the majority of this country, and push back, push for these kinds of services, these kinds of rights, then we can achieve them.

I think that the kinds of perspectives that Kali laid out are very much the kind of perspectives, certainly, that Martin Luther King was calling for when he was advancing the Freedom Budget perspective in the 1960s. We’ve got to get back to that if there’s going to be any hope for the future.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. I’m going to just play devil’s advocate here, because you’re going to have people saying that increasing spending, the government paying out health care, for example, that example of health care, paying for people’s health care, subsidizing their health care, some were going to criticize that and say that you’re sort of creating this dependency and people relying on government, and you’re asking people to be takers when they could be contributing to this system. I’m just putting the argument out there. Kali, how do you reconcile that argument? What’s your take?

AKUNO: Well, there’s so many different ways to kind of shoot holes into that. This is not a society that is at present lacking for financial resources, not by any stretch of the imagination.

One of the things that I would point to as a concrete thing is: let’s look at from where we started. Let’s look at the military budget. Let’s look at the intelligence budgets. Let’s look at all the different types of appropriation that go into aspects of Homeland Security and policing here and how much money the United States government in its totality–if you just look at the military budget alone, the U.S. military budget is basically greater than almost all the military budgets of the world combined. And for what reason? There’s no active–there’s no great conflagration or conflict or anything on the horizon. There are skirmishes everywhere in these major conflicts, of which the United States government often has a hand in steering and directing. When we just look at that figure–and let’s say even 10 to 20 percent of that was redirected towards health care–most of the health care issues–you know, we could pay for single health care plan with that that doesn’t require an increase in taxes, it doesn’t require a great deal of new legislation, and the resources are already there.

So it’s really a question in this regard, I would say, back to some of those kind of naysayer: what is our priority? What is our focus? And if our focus is on taking care of human beings and we don’t need drones and air care, jets, and cruise missiles, and all those different things, they aren’t adding any productive capacity to the economy. They’re not educating the people, with new skills, they’re not enhancing the productive capacity outside of the military complex of the country to be able to bring on all the different folks who are coming in out of high school and college every year into the economy to be active and productive.

So it’s really a question of–one aspect of it is: how do we deal with redirecting the priorities of the society?

LEBLANC: There’s another aspect too, Jessica: the small percentage of the population that owns 80 percent of the wealth. Let’s look at that for a minute. Who created that 80 percent of the wealth? It was the people who work in this country, the working class, the producers, the consumers, those whose lives make up the economy, the great majority. And we work hard. People work very hard. Some get paid better than others. People work very hard.

Now, who should control that wealth? If it’s controlled by a small number of people for their benefit, then the rest of us are going to suffer. But if we have greater economic democracy, if it’s the majority of people who are able to control the economy and make decisions on how that wealth is going to be used, then things like the Freedom Budget will be very, very easy to implement. And it will be through our hard work, it will be the result of the hard work of the majority of the American people, black and white and all different races who are a part of the labor force of this country.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Paul LeBlanc, as well as Kali Akuno, thank you both for joining us.

AKUNO: Thank you.

LEBLANC: Pleasure be with you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Kali Akuno was the Coordinator of Special Projects and External Funding for the late mayor Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, MS. He is the author of the organizing handbook Let Your Motto Be Resistance and wrote the preface to the report Operation Ghetto Storm. He is an organizer with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) (, former co-director of the US Human Rights Network, and served as executive director of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund based in New Orleans, LA. Kali currently resides in Jackson, MS.