After resurrecting the last campaign of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, the Poor People’s Campaign takes the next step.
More than 10,000 people descended on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in June to demand that America live up to the true meaning of its creed and eliminate poverty.
“This is not a commencement, this is a commencing,” Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II told the crowd.
Barber is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The effort is a resurrection of the last campaign of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life.
“This is not the commemoration of what happened 50 years ago,” Barber said. “This is the re-enactment and the re-inauguration. Until the cries of the poor are heard and things change, stand!”
If that was the fuel for a moral revival, then the next phase of the campaign will be about tending the blaze. Poor People’s Campaign organizers stress that it will require patience and persistence to dismantle policies that perpetuate poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation and a war economy that calls for more military spending at the expense of health care, education and infrastructure.
“We’re talking about a massive power building, mass organizing drive that will use the tools of voter education,” said campaign co-chair Rev. Liz Theoharis.
She said a main goal of the campaign’s early phase was to shift the narrative surrounding poverty. Now, community canvassing – registering voters and recruiting new members to the campaign – will lead into a September convening in Kentucky.
The choice to meet there is no accident. During the 40 days of civil disobedience that preceded the June demonstration, Kentucky State police repeatedly barred activists from entering the statehouse.
The focus on southern states is partly due to their history of voter discrimination. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned portions of the Voting Rights Act, freeing states from getting federal approval before changing voting laws.
Now, some of those states, including Georgia, Texas and Virginia have purged names from voting rolls at a rate higher than other states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
One of the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign is the restoration of the Voting Rights Act, but there are dozens more. The campaign also demands a living wage, guaranteed income, single-payer universal health care, an immigration system that prioritizes family unification, and clean and renewable energy.
Theoharis has heard – and rejects – criticism that the campaign’s goals are too ambitious, too broad.
“We said thank goodness that those folks weren’t leading the abolition movement, maybe then we would have just gotten a weekend off,” she said.
Theoharis added: “We have to put out not just what’s possible but what’s necessary…It’s not that we can’t do it, but that we’re not doing it,” she said.
The campaign is highly intersectional – and no one better represents how the campaign’s issues intersect than Callie Greer, a longtime activist in Selma, Ala.
“I have a son who was killed by gun violence,” said Greer, 57. “My daughter died for lack of health insurance. My husband and I both lost our jobs and were basically homeless.”
But it doesn’t end there.
“I have a brother who has been incarcerated since he was 19 years old and he’s now 60,” Greer said. “Everything that the Poor People’s Campaign represents, I’ve been directly affected by.”
Greer, who works for the Selma Center for Nonviolent Truth and Reconciliation, has become something of a poster child for the movement. When she gets fired up – which doesn’t take long – her cadence starts to mirror Barber’s. (And Barber’s sonorous delivery echoes King’s.)
“When we say violence, people are looking for blood and gore,” she said. “But it’s violent to not be able to feed your family. It’s violence to have to live with raw sewage in your yard. Once people start connecting the dots, that’s that fusion process that Dr. Barber talks about.”
Greer was among hundreds arrested during the campaign’s first phase. Arrests aren’t a measure of success, but it is a tried-and-true method of civil rights organizing.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” wrote King from an Alabama jail after his arrest in 1963.
But the public attention that mass arrests draw aren’t a part of the campaign’s next phase.
“We may not be visibly getting arrested and blocking sidewalks and shutting down highways, but we’re still campaigning,” Greer said.
For Greer, a chef, that means coaxing people into the Selma community center for some barbecue chicken, collard greens or her husband’s cornbread.
“I’ve got your ear because your mouth is busy eating,” Greer said, laughing.
She tells them: “You don’t have to be embarrassed by poverty…Poverty has been intentionally caused.”
About 43 million people in America are considered poor based on the official poverty measure, but that’s based on 1995 food prices and isn’t adjusted for the higher cost of living in expensive cities.
According to the Census Bureau’s more accurate supplemental poverty measure, which accounts for expenses such as child care, 140 million people are poor.
Theoharis credits the campaign’s messaging – “one band, one sound” – for cementing poor people into the civic discourse.
“The main goals of first phase were to shift the narrative,” she said.
In the end, the Poor People’s Campaign is a message-driven movement. And movements require people. Greer sounded almost giddy about the connections she’s made with activists from other states, like Mashyla Buckmaster, a 28-year-old formerly homeless single mom whose testimony was read into the Congressional Record in June.
“I love her spirit, I love the fight in her,” Greer said. Without the campaign, “I would have never known she existed…We’ve become friends.”
Hunter Demster of Memphis, Tenn., told a similar story. He’s not new to organizing, but the campaign connected him to like-minded activists across the state – and then in June, to like-minded people across the country.
“I’ve had three people I met in Washington, D.C., stop through Memphis already,” he said. “They know they have a place to stay.”
Demster said the campaign has given him hope.
“For the first time in my life, or since I’ve been politically active, I’ve been able to see the opportunity to organize as a Southern block – and even nationwide.”
It’s like King wrote in 1963: “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists, who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
Wendi C. Thomas is an award-winning journalist. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Undefeated, and The Christian Science Monitor. She is the editor and publisher of MLK50.com, a reporting project focused on poverty, power and public policy. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.
2018 © Marguerite Casey Foundation