ISSUE TEN | SPRING 2018
"A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. . . A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Beyond Vietnam” (April 1967)
On December 4, 1967, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced their vision for a national Poor People’s Campaign. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the SCLC’s president, sought to mobilize a multiracial coalition of “the nation's poor and disinherited” to “demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all.”
They planned a three-pronged approach:
Mobilization: wherein thousands of poor Black, Indigenous, brown, and white people would gather in Washington, D.C. and construct a shantytown on the National Mall (this would come to be called Resurrection City).
Mass demonstrations: wherein the mobilized people would participate in mass nonviolent civil disobedience. The SCLC anticipated there would be mass arrests and significant public attention.
A nationwide boycott: wherein the Poor People’s Campaign would call for a withdrawal of support from major, national corporations to prompt the business community to put pressure on Congress to listen to the grievances of the poor.
Over the next several months, they organized and prepared.
On April 4, 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. 25 days later, the Poor People’s Campaign pressed on. A multiracial coalition of 3,000 poor people mobilized in Washington, D.C., and established Resurrection City. In June, 50,000 supporters joined them on what the SCLC deemed “Solidarity Day.” In spite of the successes of the early Poor People’s Campaign, the assassinations of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy (a crucial champion of the campaign) were crippling. The campaign did not ultimately culminate in a national boycott and, to some, it seemed the torch had been dropped. That is until recently.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Rev. Shyrl Uzzell have been traveling around the country for months to introduce the reincarnation of the Poor People's Campaign to faith leaders and moral activists around the country. Their concern? Among others: to lift up “those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation” and to build “unity across lines of division.” They posit that “poverty and economic inequality cannot be understood apart from a society built on white supremacy.” And they aim to shift the ways in which “our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, LGBTQIA folks, workers, immigrants, communities of color, the disabled and the sick.” They are planning a Mass Moral March (in the spirit of Moral Mondays, a grassroots movement started in North Carolina and organized in part by Rev. Dr. Barber) on Washington, D.C. in late June of this year.
This interview is a roundtable discussion with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and Rev. Shyrl Uzzell. Read their Fundamental Principles in full here. If you’re interested in participating, they’ll tell you how to get involved below.
—Laura Bullard, Nonfiction Editor, Nat. Brut
Laura Bullard: One of the things that is so compelling about The Poor People's Campaign is how stunningly large its audience is: churched, unchurched, Black, white, brown, LGBTQ, undocumented—anyone, in your words, “affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation.” A large swath of our readership is areligious (many of us are also queer, Black, brown, neurodiverse, and have disabilities). I am a generally agnostic, queer Native American woman. When I heard you speak last October, I left with the distinct feeling that there was room in your movement for other people like me. Could you explain how your message is both radically inclusive and simultaneously rooted firmly in your faith?
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II: Well, first of all, we’re glad you feel there’s a place for you in this movement. Because there is. Like so many moral movements in history, we have said that our deepest faith traditions as well as reason and our Constitutions call us beyond the left-right divide of our public conversation, to the higher moral ground of love and justice and the common good. I’ve had atheists tell me, “Rev. Barber, I’m not a believer, but I’ve found my community in this movement.”
The brown-skinned Palestinian Jew [Jesus] I try to follow was radically inclusive more than he was religious. He offended his fellow preachers, but he attracted the poor, the sick, the soldiers, and the outcast. My faith calls me to preach good news for all people in the public square. That doesn’t mean converting everyone to Christianity. It means if I’m going to be a Christian, I have a responsibility to make sure my government treats everybody right. I’m called to press forward with all of my neighbors in this democracy toward a more perfect union.
LB: I’m interested to hear what the Poor People’s Campaign of today has learned from the Poor People’s Campaign as it was in the late 1960s under Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership. Are there ways in which the current iteration is different, both ideologically and in practice?
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: We want to be clear that our work today is an extension of the Poor People’s Campaign that started 50 years ago, not just a commemoration or celebration of it. Marian Wright Edelman, one of the people who first encouraged Dr. King to think about the campaign, became its policy director in DC. She’s still doing that work, and the Children’s Defense Fund counts 50 pieces of legislation they have lobbied for that grew out of the campaign’s vision. Al McSurely, who organized white folks for the original campaign, sits with me and a dozen others on the national steering committee of our Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. So we’ve not just learned from, but have linked up with the people who are still doing the campaign’s work.
WB: Along with my co-chair, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and our colleagues at Repairers of the Breach and the Kairos Center, we've taken up this campaign to create a platform for the rejected and forgotten people who are America’s greatest hope. We know in our faith tradition that, “The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone [Psalm 118:22],” and we have learned from history how rejected stones can reconstruct America.
So we have linked up with hundreds of organizations across America that are led by impacted people, and we are committing to 40 days of simultaneous, coordinated direct action to shock the heart of this nation and shift our public conversation from Tweets and innuendo to issues of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and the danger of Christian nationalism.
Like the Poor People's Campaign 50 years ago, we're going to DC this spring to demand that our elected representatives hear and see poor people. We are going to put the issues that matter to poor people back on the political agenda, and we are going to outline policy proposals that can move this nation forward together.
But we know now that the effort to gerrymander extremists into power is rooted in state houses. So we won't only be in DC. We will be in at least 25 state capitols, challenging state legislatures to embrace the same moral agenda. We are building power at the state level and organizing people who will continue to work in their communities to reconstruct democracy for years to come.
Rev. Shyrl Uzzell: As a song leader in this movement, I’ve learned from the original campaign the empowering Presence in the songs. We teach a song that was written around 1968, “Everybody Has a Right to Live.” And as people learn to sing it, you can watch the hope and courage rise up in them. The music moves them to rise up. And I think about how, in the Bible, the only book that never mentions God is the Book of Esther. But there’s this empowering Presence that compels her to say, “For the sake of the people, I’m going to see the king. And if I perish, I perish.” That’s what movement music does when it gets down inside of people. It moves us to rise up, no matter the consequence—to know that many who came before us stood against even greater odds and that, somehow, they are standing with us still as we sing their songs.
LB: In an interview with the News and Observer, you said, “If any theology is going to line up with the theology of Jesus Christ, it must begin declaring good news to the poor who have been made poor by systems of economic exploitation.” What does this good news look like? What does liberation look like? What is the end goal?
WB: The ancient prophets were called “seers” because they judged the present by the standard of what they knew the end was going to be. A prophetic imagination always has the end goal of the freedom, love, and justice that we were made for in mind. But it knows that we must work and struggle together as imperfect people to become a more perfect union.
Ultimately, when we make it to that end goal is not up to us. But the first victory—the first sign of progress—is when we rise up to press forward together. The Poor People's Campaign has always been an effort to bring together Black, white, and brown people—to unite a diversity of movements and demand that America live up to her promises.
Our first aim is to make poor people visible in America. Our sisters and brothers from the Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter; from the Women's March and the climate justice movement; Dreamers and TPS recipients; LGBTQ and Muslim sisters and brothers who've faced so much hate—we're linking arms with each of them and heeding the call of Jeremiah 22 that says, "Go down to the king's palace." We're not sending a letter or a Tweet. We're going into the people's houses. And we're going to say and show this nation that, "We are America, and we aren't going anywhere."
When you do that and refuse to go away, you reach the second dimension of progress: you change the conversation. A living wage, universal healthcare, a constitutional amendment to guarantee voting rights, a green economy, automatic voter registration, just immigration reform, and guaranteed basic income—these things become serious policy considerations. Of course, politicians will argue about how best to implement them and how to pay for it. But it’s progress toward the end goal when we start to talk about things that weren’t on the table before.
And then, finally, we can pass legislation that will make a real difference in the lives of poor people. Those policies won’t be perfect—and we will always have to push whoever is in power to stay true to the promise of our creeds. That’s the job of a Movement, and it is a continual calling. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t make progress. Never forget: Every major expansion of democracy and access in this nation’s history was dismissed as impossible when it was first proposed. Lyndon Johnson didn’t sign civil rights legislation and launch a War on Poverty out of the goodness of his heart. The Movement changed the national consensus to the point that he had to do something.
LB: How can people get involved?
JWH: This is a movement that's being organized in 37 states now, so you can plug in where you are. The first step is to sign up on our website. Be sure to include your area code and let us know what you're able to do. Organizers in your state will reach out and let you know about town halls that are happening all over the country. Also, you can tune into "The Gathering: A Time for Reflection, Revival and Resistance," a monthly program that Rev. Barber and I host. It's a livestream and a podcast that we've designed to educate and center communities around this work. You can start with the first episode and host a weekly group in your community; we'll be adding new episodes and resources each month. And, finally, look for mass actions at your state house and in DC that will begin the week after Mother’s Day. You can put June 23rd on your summer calendar. The campaign will unite for a Mass Moral March on Washington, DC that day, and we are inviting everyone to come demonstrate our power in this critical election year—then go home and register, educate, and mobilize voters in your community.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is the President & Sr. Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival; Bishop with the College of Affirming Bishops and Faith Leaders; Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary; Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and the author of three books: Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing; The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and The Rise of a New Justice Movement; and Forward Together: A Moral Message For The Nation.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is a celebrated spiritual writer and sought-after speaker. A native of North Carolina, he is a graduate of Eastern University and Duke Divinity School. Most recently, he is the co-author, with Reverend Dr. William Barber II, of The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.
Rev. Sheryl Uzzell is the Seminary Tour Coordinator for Repairers of the Breach, a nonpartisan not-for-profit organization that 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.
Laura Bullard is a queer, Lumbee writer and editor based in Durham, NC, whose work focuses on the interplay between identity and power structures with a focus on gender, sexuality, race, and mental illness. You can find more of her work at laurabullard.com.