Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death, and most politicians have chosen to commemorate his legacy by tweeting out some choice quotes — and then leaving it at that.
At the time of his death, however, Reverend King was doing more than crafting inspirational phrases. He was laying the groundwork for his Poor People’s Campaign, a intersectional movement dedicated to eliminating poverty in America, the richest nation on earth.
As part of the campaign, King helped to organize a 3,000 person protest camp on the Washington mall for six weeks. After King’s death, the movement tragically lost most of its momentum. Fifty years later, Reverend Dr. William Barber II and Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis have resurrected his movement, with chapters in 40 states, all of them guided by the same mission: challenging the country’s “distorted morality” and replacing it with something just.
It’s hard to overstate just how radical King’s Poor People campaign was. At the time of its inception, the term intersectionality didn’t exist, and the civil rights struggle for African-Americans and economic justice for low-income whites were seen in opposition to one another. (The latter, of course, is still true today.) King was reportedly moved to tears in 1967 after traveling to Marks, Mississippi, and seeing some of the nation’s most impoverished people — children whose parents were too poor to give them a blanket, and a Head Start teacher forced to cut an apple into four quarters and feed them to her hungriest students.
“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age,” King said in his 1967 book, Where do we go here: Chaos or Community? “It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”
King sought to organize a Poor People’s campaign led by the country’s poorest and most disenfranchised. He demanded an “economic bill of rights” that included a guaranteed basic income, full employment, and more low-income housing. After the campaign presented their demands to Congress, King organized “Resurrection City,” the protest camp where participants stayed for six weeks in 1968.
Fast forward 50 years and precious little of King’s vision for economic justice has been achieved in America. In the richest, most developed nation on earth, 17.2 percent of the population lives in poverty and 21 percent of all children live in poverty, with disproportionately higher rates for Black and Latino children. The United States ranks 18th among the top 21 most developed countries in terms of poverty, inequality, and economic mobility. It is 23rd in income inequality, lagging behind Turkey and Slovakia.
When political candidates on the left and right do talk about inequality, their language tends to center around “middle class jobs” or “working families.” The word poverty is almost always left out of the equation — as if it no longer exists, or the people who suffer from it don’t really matter.
But Barber and Theoharis’ Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival hopes to change all of that by creating an intersectional movement outside of the two-party system, one that focuses on the “saving America’s soul” from the sins of militarism, systemic racism, environmental destruction, voter suppression, and poverty.
Though the campaign officially reignited last year, it’s intensifying in 2018 with actions planned for communities of color as well as traditionally white areas, including the Rust Belt, Central Valley of California, and Appalachia, among other places.
“We need moral revival in this nation,” Rev. Theoharis, campaign co-chair, said in Detroit recently. “It isn’t necessarily a spiritual or religious revival, but we need to have a revolution of values.”
In March, the campaign traveled to Selma, Alabama, to cross the infamous bridge and later organize folks struggling with insufficient wastewater treatment. A few weeks later, it went onto Harlan County, Kentucky, and South Charleston, West Virginia.
Beginning on Mother’s Day, the campaign will launch dozens of initiatives across the nation, from direct action, to voter registration, to nonviolent civil disobedience, leading up to a mass mobilization at the U.S. Capitol in late June.
Reverend William Barber speaking at the @NCRMuseum about the revived Poor People’s Campaign:
“The most radical and progressive shifts for the good in US history have always occurred when concerned citizens joined together across racial lines.” #MLK50 #MLK50Forward pic.twitter.com/qX84nGNWpn
— Meredith Husar (@meredithhusar) April 3, 2018
The intensity of the actions, the diversity of its goals, and its geographic distribution mirrors King’s initial design for the Poor People Campaign. King knew that the campaign would have to be sustained and intersectional if were to have any success — and low-income folks would have to be at its leadership.
“We ought to come [to Washington] in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on,” King said at the time. “People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.”
Fifty years later, the Campaign hopes to turns King’s unfinished initiative into sustainable justice.
“You dishonor the movement and you dishonor a prophet if you just remember the prophet without having a revival of the movement that the prophet stood for,” Rev. Dr. Barber said in Memphis on Wednesday. “Nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.”