Text of public talk delivered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2000

David Skidmore
Drake University

As we honor MLK, we also remember the names of the many courageous individuals who fought alongside him to expand the scope of freedom and opportunity in this country – Rosa Parks, Medger Evers, Bob Moses, John Lewis, Roger Wilkins and so many others that we could never hope to name them all here today. In fact, millions of Americans marched, sang, signed petitions and sometimes braved jail to challenge racial exclusion and oppression in this country. The crusade for civil rights was not about politics as usual, but was instead a vast, bottom up movement for social change.

With the Iowa caucuses almost upon us, we are in a season of conventional politics. But today I want to talk with you about movement politics and its potential to alter the terms of debate not just here in the US, but at the global level. Conventional politics revolves around politicians, political parties, political action committees, lobbying groups. Its highest expression is the vote and many have sacrificed and even died to expand access to the ballot box. Conventional politics is honorable and necessary. It is how we pick our leaders and choose between policy A and policy B.

But moments of profound and positive social change in this country have arisen not from conventional politics, but from movement politics – the unconventional churning of popular passion and creativity around basic demands for justice, freedom and democracy. The labor movement. The women’s movement. The peace movement. The environmental movement. The civil rights movement. These social movements shared certain traits in common. All were decentralized and non-hierarchical in structure. All based their strength upon grassroots support. All of these movements began outside of the boundaries of conventional politics. They depended upon dramatic applications of direct action – the labor strike, the hunger strike, the boycott, mass marches and civil disobedience. They all sought not just to tinker with existing policies, but to shift the moral center of gravity in the society at large. And all were controversial and even vilified in their day.

And yet in each case, movement politics changed the nature of conventional politics as ideas that were once considered radical and unthinkable came to be embraced within the system. The labor movement resulted in the 8 hour day, the minimum wage and the Wagner Act of the 1930s, which confirmed the rights of workers to engage in collective bargaining with their employers. The Vietnam-era peace movement led to the War Powers Act and the end of US involvement in a futile and bloody conflict. The environmental movement led to the Clear Air and Clean Water Acts. The civil rights movement led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Despite the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment, the women’s movement has led to the change of thousands of laws that have enhanced the rights and opportunities of women. Movement politics matters. Movement politics works.

As the title of my talk suggests, I want to argue that we have entered an era in which movement politics has shifted from the national to the global level. We have all heard the pundits talk about “globalization” and its significance for our daily lives. Our economy is more and more dependent upon those of other countries. Multinational corporations weave together operations that span the globe. Money and capital cross national boundaries in vast sums. The internet connects people from around the world. Vast media networks transmit cultural images far beyond their places of origin. Immigration results in massive movements of people from one place to another. We increasingly confront problems such as global warming or the spread of AIDS that cannot be resolved on a national level alone.

For better or worse, globalization is a fact of life. But a crucial question remains to be decided: What kind of globalization? In simplified terms, we face a choice between corporate globalism and grassroots globalism. Corporate globalism is a top down, elite controlled process driven by the search for profit. Grassroots globalism is a bottom up, democratic process driven by human needs and the quest for solidarity among peoples of different cultures and nationalities. The choice between these competing visions will determine the kind of world we bequeath to our children.

Corporate globalism is not evil. Nor is the desire for profit. Large corporations provide many of the products and services that enrich our lives daily. But the corporate vision is too narrow and too exclusionary. The profit motive does not respect the human need for community. It does not provide for those who fall behind in a hyper-competitive marketplace. It does not acknowledge the limits to growth or the need for environmental sustainability. It does not comprehend the value of cultural diversity. The corporate vision of globalization is dangerously myopic.

It is as a response to the limitations of corporate globalism that we are now witnessing the globalization of movement politics. The spread and deepening of transnational social movements has been quietly progressing for many years now. For the media, however, the battle in Seattle during the recent meeting of the World Trade Organization was the coming out party for this new kind of politics. Seattle became the focal point for a wide variety of groups that are demanding a more democratic and humane vision of globalization.

The rules of the existing world economic order focus predominantly upon corporate rights. Barriers to trade have been lowered. Multinational corporations have gained equal treatment under national laws. Intellectual property has been protected. But the emphasis is one sided. Grassroots global movements are now demanding that trade agreements establish minimum labor standards, that governments and corporations take steps to ensure that economic growth is environmentally sustainable, that poor countries be relieved of the crushing international debt burdens that create so much human misery.

But grassroots globalism extends beyond the international economy. Transnational social movements are addressing global issues such as peace, human rights, poverty, gender equality and the protection of indigenous cultures. These movements tie together activists from countries around the world. The internet serves as the primary medium of communication. And a commitment to democratic values serves as the core procedural norm.

Grassroots Globalism has already achieved important victories. The International Treaty to Ban Landmines was the product of over 1400 non-governmental organizations working to pressure governments to take action to rid the world of the estimated 100 million deadly mines that now plague countries such as Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. The global warming agreement would not have come about without the persistence of hundreds of environmental groups from around the world. The human rights movement can take a large share of credit for the new International Criminal Court that will someday bring to justice those guilty of committing genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Americans play a major role in each of these networks. It is therefore ironic that the US government has yet to sign either the landmine or the ICC agreements and has signed but not ratified the global warming treaty. The US is also one of only a few countries that have not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Children. As the world blazes new trails of cooperation, the US has fallen behind.

Governments are not the only targets of grassroots globalism. Transnational social movements have often campaigned to change corporate practices directly. An example concerns the issue of old growth forests, which play a critical role in maintaining global biological diversity. The Rainforest Action Network has demanded that the major home improvement retail stores make a commitment to phase out the marketing of products made with old growth wood. For several years now, RAN has organized protests and boycotts aimed at Home Depot and similar stores.

Last spring, a group of students from Drake, ISU and Grinnell held a protest at Home Depot as part of this campaign. By the fall of last year, Home Depot had capitulated, promising to phase out old growth wood. Lowes followed suit. The campaign then shifted to Menards. A group of students in my Grassroots Globalism class took part in another protest at Menards last Fall. This time the students engaged in civil disobedience, locking themselves down in the parking lot. 16 students were arrested by Des Moines police. One of those students was named Priscilla Wyman. When a reporter from the Des Moines Register asked Priscilla why she choose arrest in order to make her point, Priscilla pulled from her pocket a piece of paper that she carries with her. It contained a quote from Martin Luther King taken from his letter from the Birmingham jail:

You may well ask: Why direct action?…Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

Movement politics is alive and well. And it remains as essential today as during King’s day. Today’s activists are working on a broader scale than ever before. The entire globe is their canvass. But they stand on the shoulders of those who came before and showed the way.




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