When tens of thousands of people converge on statehouses across the nation and the U.S. Capitol in May 2018, it will be to further the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Poor People’s Campaign that Marian Wright Edelman, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr. and so many other freedom fighters organized 50 years ago.
The reignited Poor People’s Campaign is expected to be a multiyear effort that will begin on Mother’s Day with six weeks of direct action and civil disobedience across at least 25 states and the District of Columbia, leading up to a mass mobilization at the U.S. Capitol June 21.
According to organizers, each week will focus on a different injustice, beginning with child poverty, and will include specific policy goals and a voter-education program to advance a moral agenda at the state and federal levels. Coalitions formed in more than 30 states will hold voter-education workshops and train grassroots leaders and activists in direct action, nonviolent civil disobedience and movement building.
Fifty years ago, Edelman urged King to organize the first Poor People’s Campaign in order to amplify the urgent needs and oppressive conditions that weighed on black people living in poverty, particularly in the Deep South.
At the time, King was organizing the sanitation strike in Memphis, Tenn., to push back against the economic exploitation of black sanitation workers in that city. After meeting with Edelman, he became equally determined that it was time to go to Washington, D.C., and make elected officials cut black America its check. Though King was clear that intentional economic depravation was—and is—a form of genocide, he also made it clear that adhering to the tenets of capitalism would not save us.
This led to the birth of the Poor People’s Campaign in Marks, Miss., “chosen for its status as the poorest town in the poorest county of the poorest state in the nation,” and its culmination in Washington, D.C., at a temporary campsite created on the National Mall: “Resurrection City.”
During a press conference at Capitol Hill on Monday, organizers of the new Poor People’s Campaign, comprised of clergy and moral leaders, declared their commitment to the SCLC’s mission: “… challenging the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and America’s distorted national morality.”
As the movement unfolds, it will also draw on art, music and religious traditions to challenge the dominant narrative that blames poor people for poverty.
The dangerous and vilifying rhetoric surrounding poverty is why economic exploitation is a much more accurate way to frame how white supremacy and capitalism work in tandem to oppress black and brown communities as well as First Nations—whether through occupation of those communities, incarceration, food deserts, limited access to quality health care and education, or a toxic blend of all of the above.
“With extremists who stand against voting rights, living wages, health care and immigration reform gaining even more influence today in Washington and in statehouses across the country, the need for this campaign is more urgent than ever,” said the Rev. Liz Theoharis, the campaign’s co-chair.
As The Root previously reported, the Rev. William Barber II stepped down from his role as president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, a position he’d held since 2006, to join the leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign Call for a National Moral Revival, and he serves as the campaign’s co-chair.
“We must transform the moral narrative in this country,” Barber said Monday. “We went through the most expensive presidential campaign in U.S. history in 2016 without a single serious discussion of poverty and systemic racism. Now, we are witnessing an emboldened attack on the poor and an exacerbation of systemic racism that demands a response. This is not about saving any one party or policy agenda, but about saving the soul of America.”
Campaign leaders also announced that next year, they will release a report conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies auditing the “past 50 years of systemic racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation in America.”
The report will be based on the landmark 1968 Kerner Commission report, which documented how systemic racism in housing and urban development policies contributed to the riots in Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, N.J., Detroit and other cities earlier that decade.
A follow-up to the Kerner Commission’s report clarified that while the original report indicted “white racism” on charges of marginalizing, targeting and exploiting black America, it left “white racism” too open to interpretation.
From the follow-up report:
The Kerner Commission report failed to specify exactly what was meant by white racism and largely ignored the problem of institutional racism—the less overt, more subtle acts that sustain and perpetuate racist policies in virtually every American institution. Thus, the report placed too much emphasis on changing white attitudes and underplayed the importance of changing white behavior and the basic structure of such institutions as schools, labor unions and political parties.
A preliminary analysis of the forthcoming Institute for Policy Studies report, released last Wednesday, outlines how the conditions that motivated the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign have worsened over the past 50 years.
“The data reveal just how deeply entwined are the problems of racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation,” said Sarah Anderson, editor of the preliminary IPS report. “To combat any one of these problems, we need to break down issue silos and unite Americans behind a broad agenda for transformative change.”
- Compared to 1968, 60 percent more Americans are living below the official poverty line today—a total of 41 million people. And while the percentage of families in poverty has merely inched up and down, the top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled.
- More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, people of color still face a broad range of barriers to democracy. According to the Brennan Center, 23 states have adopted voter-suppression laws since 2010.
- The criminalization of poverty and racially biased sentencing and policing practices have driven the number of prison inmates up eightfold since 1968, with the share who are people of color increasing from less than half to 66 percent. Federal spending on prisons has increased tenfold in real terms since 1976.
- Spending trends also reflect increased scapegoating of immigrants. Between 1976 and 2015, federal expenditures on border control and immigration enforcement rose eightfold while the number of deportees grew tenfold.
- The gap between our government’s discretionary spending on the military versus anti-poverty programs has grown from 2 to 1 at the height of the Vietnam War to 4 to 1 today. In the meantime, millions of lives have been lost in wars that have made us no safer, while “real security” in the form of good jobs, health care and quality education remains beyond the reach of millions of Americans.
- Since 1968, the environment has become less polluted, but the poor and people of color are bearing the brunt of climate change and suffering the most from environmental hazards. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, at least 4 million families with children are being exposed to high levels of lead, with low-income and people of color at greatest risk. And low-income families and people of color tend to be more likely to have living conditions and jobs that increase the health risks of extreme heat.
These are the entrenched battles we face while white moderates and conservatives continue to tell systemically victimized black Americans to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
This is what state and economic violence looks like.
While rallying support for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, King made it plain:
We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it because that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor are already imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination.
This is the same moral clarity that drives the reignited, new Poor People’s Campaign. Barber has never wavered in his insistence that the United States of America is in need of moral witnesses, revolutionary first responders, and freedom fighters to be the “moral defibrillator” that resuscitates the heart of this nation’s democracy.
The time for resurrection is now.
The campaign is co-organized by Repairers of the Breach; the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at the Union Theological Seminary; and scores of local and national grassroots groups across the country.