It’s time we make those rights a reality.
In the United States, people talk a lot about rights and freedoms. Often, however, the discussion is narrow in scope, as in freedom from external constraints or the interference of others. Thinkers such as Erich Fromm have referred to this concept as “negative freedom” or “freedom from.”
While these freedoms are important—some are inscribed in the Bill of Rights—they are incomplete. Positive freedom, sometimes called “freedom for” or “freedom to” is about the ability of people to act freely and develop their potential. It also implies the right of people to meet their basic needs as members of the human community.
Having one kind of freedom without the other is pretty cold comfort. As the French author Anatole France wryly noted, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
As World War II was winding down, President Franklin Roosevelt in an address to Congress explicitly recognized that negative freedom was not enough. “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
He called for a “Second Bill of Rights,” which would guarantee all Americans the right to such basics as employment, a living wage, education, health care, leisure, and security in the event of sickness, age or disability.
Roosevelt died before he could advance this vision, but his call helped inspire the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which includes a pretty comprehensive enumeration of social, civil and economic rights.
Alas, it’s one thing to declare rights and quite another to actually exercise them.
Twenty years after the UN Declaration, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. renewed Roosevelt’s call, saying that “We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work. Some people are too young, some are too old, some are physically disabled, and yet in order to live, they need income.”
The original Poor Peoples’ Campaign that Dr. King and allies initiated 50 years ago aimed to make those rights a reality.
As you may have noticed, we haven’t got there yet. Up until now, such demands and declarations have been matters of wish and aspiration rather than fact. In the real world, people only have those rights they can effectively realize, even in the face of opposition.
And that’s why the American Friends Service Committee is one of many organizations that, since 2018 has actively participated in the revived Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
A basic demand of the campaign is that that everybody has the right to live: “Given the abundance that exists in this country and the fundamental dignity inherent to all humanity, every person in the United States has the right to housing, education, health care, welfare, decent and dignified jobs and the right to organize for the realization of these rights.”
It's past time to make those rights and freedom a reality. We are committed to the struggle and we encourage you to get involved as well.
In my home state of West Virginia, we have a long tradition of fighting for those rights—and sometimes winning. That tradition reaches from the Great Rail Strike of 1877, which spread from Martinsburg across the nation, to the Mine Wars of the early 20th century to the Black Lung Movement of the 1970s to the WV Teachers’ Strike of 2018, the ripples of which are still spreading across the nation. I’m proud of the role AFSC has played and is continuing to play in supporting working people in several of those struggles.
Those who came before us aimed high. Henry David Thoreau’s challenge to us is more relevant than ever: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”