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Wednesday, 05 September 2018 19:21

Picking up the Mantle - A New Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival

Written by Steve Hansen, PPC Hampton Roads Organizer and Loretta Kahn

"We are not left, we are not right, we are not conservative or liberal — this campaign is a moral call to address a distorted public policy agenda that leaves the most vulnerable behind."  ~Dr. William Barber

The Original Campaign
After 12 years of leadership culminating in the end of legal segregation of African Americans and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced a broader mission.
He envisioned a human rights campaign that would improve the lives of all poor Americans, regardless of racial identity, and denounce the triple evils of poverty, racism, and war.

In December 1967, he announced the "Poor People's Campaign," a plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington — a massive rally of some 50,000 people planned for April 22, 1968.

This campaign would demand better jobs, better homes, better education—better lives. Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the campaign was to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”

In a first-of-its-kind meeting, leaders of more than 50 multiracial organizations representing different segments of the poor and dispossessed came together in Atlanta to cement planning for the Poor People’s Campaign.
"We will go there, we will demand to be heard, and we will stay until America responds," Dr. King stated. "In short, we will be petitioning our government for specific reforms, and we intend to build militant nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty," he announced.

But success was not to be, and Dr. King didn't live to see his vision take flight. He was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968, at age 39, while supporting black sanitation workers protesting unsafe work conditions and unequal pay. The campaign was postponed to May 12, with the Rev. Abernathy leading the way.

While organizers and the nation still mourned, the "Resurrection City" of tents was erected on the National Mall. Several thousand protesters showed up, but the numbers were much smaller than proposed, and many other problems surfaced that stymied their progress.

With the assassination on June 5, 1968 of Senator Robert Kennedy, one of the campaign's primary Congressional supporters, the fate of the campaign was sealed, effectively ending the Poor People's Campaign and the Civil Rights Movement.

The Ensuing Years
Fifty years later, poverty and inequality remain pervasive in America. While the U.S. economy has grown 18-fold, wealth inequality has expanded, costs of living have increased, and social programs have been restructured and dramatically cut. The federal hourly minimum wage of $7.25 has not been raised since 2009.

Systemic racism is rampant. There are fewer voting rights than there were 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. Since 2010, 23 states have passed racist voter suppression laws, including gerrymandering and redistricting, that make it harder to register. Early voting days and hours have been reduced, voter rolls have been purged, and more-restrictive voter ID laws have been enacted.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, imprisoning more people, especially poor people, than any country in the world.

Dr. King argued that the U.S. would "never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube."
His words still ring true. In 2016, the Institute for Policy Studies reported that "military spending is almost four times the investment in people's lives at home — $630 billion for the military versus a mere $183 billion for education, jobs, housing and other basic human needs."

The Revival
The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival was publicly announced in May 2017, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign. Like its predecessor, the modern campaign is focused on what Dr. King called the "triple evils" of racism, poverty and militarism — with the addition of ecological devastation, a global crisis that disproportionately affects poor people.

The new campaign grew out of "Forward Together," a powerful years-long movement initiated in 2013 by the Rev. Dr. William Barber, a pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. A staunch human rights advocate, he had served many years as head of the North Carolina Civil Rights Commission and leader of the state NAACP.

Forward Together formed a coalition of more than 100 organizations ­—representing Christians, Muslims, Jews, nonbelievers, blacks, Latinos, poor whites, feminists, environmentalists, and others — to protest the ultra-conservative agenda of the North Carolina legislature, with participation reaching about 80,000.

The movement's most high-profile successes were defeat of the state's "bathroom bill," which was really a guise for wider restrictions on personal freedoms, and ousting the state's right-wing governor. The campaign spread across the nation as "Moral Mondays."
Rev. Dr. Barber had met the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and learned of her 20 years of grassroots efforts to end poverty. The two of them are co-directors of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. They spent more than a year reaching out to communities in states across the country, met with tens of thousands of people and witnessed the strength of their moral courage in trying times. They have gathered testimonies from hundreds of poor people and chronicled their demands for a better society.

Drawing from past supporters and recruiting new ones, they have signed on a bevy of national organizations as partners, combining their power. Rallies and marches have been staged in 30 state capitals and in the nation's capital.
The Rev. Barber has stated,“We’ve got to hold up the banner until every person has health care, we’ve got to hold it up until every child is lifted in love, we’ve got to hold it up until every job is a living-wage job, until every person in poverty has guaranteed subsistence." "The Rev. Dr. William Barber has become, in the past few years, an indispensable figure in the civil-rights landscape, and, perhaps, the individual most capable of crafting a broad-based political counterpoint to the divisiveness of Trumpism," said Jelani Cobb a New Yorker staff writer. Noted philosopher Dr. Cornel West has stated, “William Barber is the closest person we have to Martin Luther King, Jr. in our midst."

A firsthand report
Early in the morning of Saturday, June 23, 2018, I headed to the nation’s capital for the Poor People’s Campaign National Rally and Moral Revival.
A fusion coalition movement rising up, it is a new force challenging our nation’s distorted moral narrative. The movement is uniting many thousands of people across the country in 30 states —including Virginia —to challenge the evils of systemic racism, systemic poverty, the war economy/militarism, and ecological devastation.

At the National Mall, I joined thousands of activists gathered from across the nation for the rally and march capping off 40 days of direct moral action.

Among the activities during the "40 Days of Moral Action" were direct action, nonviolent demonstrations at many of the state capitals, and weekly live stream events watched across the country that provided social justice awareness, education, and training. Locally, live stream watch parties were hosted by Lynnhaven Colony Congregational Church in Virginia Beach. The rally included music, speeches, testimonies from impacted poor people, and calls for action.

Following the rally, we marched to the Capitol, where letters to Congress were delivered, in which the campaign’s co-chairs cite the tens of millions of poor people in the U.S. with limited food, housing and utilities and the passage of new voter restrictions in 23 states since 2010.

“This is the true hacking of our democracy, allowing people to win office who then deny healthcare and living wages, cut necessary social programs and push policies that promote mass incarceration, hurt immigrants, and devastate our environment,” they wrote.
“These racist laws hurt not just people of color, but poor whites whose lives are upended by the politicians put in office by extremist voter suppression.” Rev. Barber stated. He was clear in his call that this work is grounded in America's moral traditions.
"Don't get it twisted," he said. "We are not left, we are not right, we are not conservative or liberal — this campaign is a moral call to address a distorted public policy agenda that leaves the most vulnerable behind."

Creating local area, state-wide, and national fusion coalitions is at the heart of the Poor People’s Campaign. A fusion coalition recognizes that its members may have differing agendas —associated with poverty, racism, immigration, militarism, LGBTQ rights, ecological devastation, healthcare, or other social justice issues — but all their issues would be positively impacted by collectively working to change our nation’s moral narrative.

A fusion coalition understands that if coalition members, including faith communities, join together, our numbers are larger than our special interest opponents, and together we can promote a moral narrative that will frame and critique public policy. An area fusion coalition is forming here in Hampton Roads as well as in Richmond, Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, and Lynchburg/Roanoke.

In the next phase of the campaign, described by Rev. Dr. Barber and as an answer to King's call in his "I Have a Dream" speech — is a call to go back to our home communities to educate, register, and mobilize voters and build power in our communities from the bottom up through fusion coalitions.

If you believe in the campaign's fundamental principles we invite you or your organization to join us and help build the power make Dr. King's dream a reality.

Printed in the Hampton Roads Gazeti

Read 935 times Last modified on Wednesday, 05 September 2018 19:51