By Penny Smith
The most recent New Yorker (May 14, 2018) contains an extended essay on the Reverend William Barber (“The Southern Strategist” by Jelani Cobb, pp. 68-75), written by a fan. However, if you have ever heard Barber speak or have read transcripts of those speeches or been privy to his current political work, you know it’s hard to come away from the experience not an enthusiast.
The Poor People’s Campaign was part of the later work of Martin Luther King, Jr. It culminated in the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington, led by Ralph Abernathy after King was assassinated. Rather than focusing on civil rights for African Americans, it expanded the King portfolio to economic and human rights for all people. Arising from the ashes of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, itself a victim to the then on-going conflict in Vietnam, the campaign sought economic justice by advocating for a living wage, adequate affordable housing, access to capital for small businesses, ensuring a seat at the table debating and deciding policies effecting poor people, and a government commitment to full employment.
Following the March on Washington, the Campaign established Resurrection City, a shantytown in the national capitol. The FBI had long monitored King and had engaged in early efforts to discredit the Washington march. It closely scrutinized daily events at Resurrection City. Richard Nixon made its existence and demands a campaign issue; he opposed them and embraced “law and order.” After weeks of internal discord, external condemnation, and few organized protests that attracted positive media attention to the issue of poverty, on June 20 local police action increased tensions. When the permit for the camp expired three days later, the police physically began formal evictions proceedings, arresting people who failed to leave.
Although there were associated poor people demonstrations periodically for the next four years, the movement became moribund, until now. The Reverend Barber stepped down from his work leading a resurgence of the North Carolina NAACP to revitalize King’s project. Within two years, under the leadership of Barber and the Reverend Liz Theoharis (Kairos Center, Union Theological Seminary), an organization formed, a social media presence emerged, a commitment to a “moral campaign” developed, an agenda for action was written, and planned events commenced. Monday, May 14, 2018, was a National Day of Action and, predictably, police made arrests.
The Campaign’s task is to challenge “the evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism” that are “persistent, pervasive, and perpetuated by a distorted narrative.” Additional demonstrations are slated for the next six weeks with pop-up events in at least 30 states.
Barber sums up the challenge he and Theoharis have undertaken: “In the richest nation in the world – that’s what America is – we have 140 million people who live in poverty and many of them are working poor. We have 13 million households that can’t afford water. We have four million households whose children and the family are affected by lead in their water. Study after study tells us that hundreds of thousands of people die in the United States from poverty and low wealth, not because it’s their time to die … Fifty years ago we were fighting to come forward. Fifty years later we are fighting retrogression. We have what’s called an impoverished democracy that is going backwards rather than forward. And it’s not just because Trump is in office.”
Committed to a multi-year campaign using the non-violence, albeit confrontational techniques, of King, the Poor People’s Campaign intends to “shake America’s conscience.” “We know this nation can be better. We’ve never lost a fight for justice that we chose to fight. The only ones we have lost in history are the ones no one chose to stand up for.”
The Campaign is non-partisan, although many of the demands and all of the issues are more closely aligned with the Democratic Party Platform than that of the GOP. However, as Barber frequently points out, the issues are not blue state issues or red state issues, not left or right issues, not Republican or Democratic Party issues, but right or wrong issues. They are moral issues about what kind of nation we want to be.
Why be concerned about all this? North Carolina is the home state of the revitalized Poor People’s Campaign leader. It builds on the success and methods of the Moral Monday Movement he founded in Raleigh in response to repressive Republican policies that disproportionately affected the state’s poorer citizens. Ours is also one of the states actively involved in demonstrations.
The Jackson County NAACP is also actively involved in advancing the campaign’s agenda, kicking off their public involvement with a Town Hall held on March 28 of this year and locally facilitating the development of collaboration with allied local groups, like Indivisible Common Ground OFA – WCU. There is also a very active group in Asheville.
The issues are our issues, the analysis our analysis and many of the remedies our policy suggestions. Barber was a speaker at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Some of the people working within the movement are members or sympathizers of our party; they are all potential Democratic voters.
Yet the main reason we should keep abreast of the Poor People’s Campaign, consider donating our time, person, and/or financial support to it, is that it’s the right thing to do. It advocates for the justice toward which history’s arc bends.
Initially, the Poor People’s Campaign stalled in 1968 due to internal tensions, external pressure, and the death of its charismatic leader. External pressure always exists and is currently heightened by the populism of Donald Trump ad his allies. Internal tensions are chosen, not inevitable. Today we can avoid them, if we have the will to place a greater good before personal preference. Now, although leadership is more dispersed than 1968, it benefits from being embodied by the right man for this time. Read the New Yorker piece on Barber. He’s a courageous, thoughtful, spellbinder who’s taking a national stage when we need him.
For more information about the specifics of the Poor People’s Campaign, check out its web site: poorpeoplescampaign.org. Specifically, look at their Moral Agenda.
Barber has also founded another non-profit organization (Repairers of the Breach) that, according to its web site, “seeks to build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts our deepest moral and constitutional values to redeem the heart and soul of our country. We challenge the position that the preeminent moral issues are prayer in public schools, abortion and property rights. Instead, we declare that the oral public concerns of our faith traditions are how our society treats the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color, and the sick.” For more information, check it out, too: breachrepairers.org.