How a new Poor People’s Campaign is mobilizing, organizing, and building power nationwide.
By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
August 8, 2018
The President’s Council of Economic Advisers recently declared that the War on Poverty “is largely over and a success,” in an effort to justify new work requirements for public safety-net programs. This is more than just untrue. It is a willful act of violence at a time when there are 140 million poor and low-income people in the richest country in the history of the world. Since 2010, there has been an onslaught of attacks on voting rights in state legislatures and racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering have helped to smuggle state leaders into office who then turn around and pass policies that hurt the poor and marginalized.
As clergy who minister and work alongside poor people across America, we know these realities predate the current administration. Income inequality and wealth disparity have increased under Republicans and Democrats over the past four decades. Poor people and moral leaders have been calling for a Poor People’s Campaign for a long time. At the invitation of local communities, we visited 26 states in 2016, holding “Moral Revivals” in forgotten places where we met black, white, brown, and Native Americans who are starving for a new moral vision of the common good. So, when the election of 2016 happened, we didn’t have to react. We knew Donald Trump was a symptom of a moral crisis and that nothing less than building a long-term, mass fusion movement would have the power to change the narrative and change the policy direction of the country.
Fortunately, such a movement was already underway in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. On New Year’s Eve of 2017, we held a Watch Night Service and National Teach-In calling for a Poor People’s Campaign and moral revival in the land. We went back on the road, traveling to 15 communities by invitation and pulling together leaders from 37 states, training them specifically for the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival went public on December 4, 2017, with a press conference and action in the Capitol Rotunda as the Senate and House were debating the draconian tax bill, the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich since the Civil War. On February 5, 2018, we held simultaneous press conferences in more than 35 states announcing how grassroots leaders in states across the country were readying for 40 days of action, education, and organizing. On February 12, on the 50th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, Fight for $15 workers in dozens of cities across the country joined up with the Poor People’s Campaign and went on strike. On March 26, we were consecrated by moral leaders from many faith traditions at Union Theological Seminary. On April 4, we stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. King’s assassination and urged that to really honor Dr. King, we needed to pick up the baton and finish the unfinished business of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. On April 9, we released the Souls of Poor Folk Audit and Moral Agenda for the Campaign. On May 13 at National City Christian Church we broadcast the mass meeting that kicked off 40 days of nonviolent moral fusion direct action.
From Mother’s Day to the summer solstice, thousands of people in 40 states committed themselves to a season of direct action to launch the campaign. For six consecutive weeks, organizers gathered in state capitals across the country and in Washington, DC, for nonviolent moral fusion direct action, weekly mass meetings, teach-ins, and cultural events. The result was 219 actions in 40 days with over 5,000 people presenting themselves for nonviolent civil disobedience and tens of thousands witnessing—the largest and most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in 21st-century America.
More than just a series of rallies and actions, a new model of organizing in this country has been catalyzed. From Alaska to Alabama; from California to the Carolinas; from Flint, Michigan, to Oak Flat, Arizona, people are coming together to organize moral outrage around poverty, racism, ecological devastation, and militarism into a transforming force, to turn the poor into agents of change rather than objects of history.
In 40 states, there are now coordinating committees building bridges between communities who have often been pitted against one another. In every region of the country, there are poor people and people of faith and conscience uniting and organizing across lines of race, religion, age, geography, gender and sexuality, political party, and other lines of division. One organizer from Alabama recently told us, “In a state with a history of using divide and conquer tactics, activating a statewide network of energized and diverse activists has inspired some and reinvigorated others to work for what is right for the poor.”
Most significantly, organizers are building an infrastructure that is meant to last. Trainings are ongoing in digital organizing, documentation, and media outreach. Theomusicologists and cultural workers are teaching and leading new music and art that echo those of other states. Political educators are inviting the kind of study and learning that will develop local leadership in the states. Legal teams and lawyers are supporting organizing and providing representation when it is needed. Coordinating committees are dedicated to crowdsourcing and fundraising one person at a time.
Before the launch, we were told that our vision was larger than our reach. Friends and allies cautioned that we should focus on a single issue, as if people’s lives could be compartmentalized. While we have heard this same argument for years, politicians and corporations have waged war on voting rights, health care, housing, education, water, land, climate, and communities. Then they’ve taken their bloated military budgets and used our bodies to wage war abroad.
This is not the time for an incremental campaign, but rather one that is willing to confront the rotten structures that perpetuate these injustices and is prepared to build new and unsettling alliances. In Missouri, hundreds of young black low-wage workers and parents linked up with brigades of octogenarians to stage some of the largest actions in the country. Apache leaders set off from Oak Flat in Arizona and caravanned across the entire nation bringing diverse indigenous tribes into the campaign. In New York, community organizers in New York City met with veterans and religious leaders from upstate. In California, undocumented folks in Los Angeles connected with homeless organizers in Salinas and policy experts in Sacramento. In Mississippi, families struggling with poverty and the suppression of voting rights rallied even when dogs and extremists attempted to intimidate them. The result, they told us, was something new, even for seasoned organizers: Leaders in California asserted, “We’re building a broad and diverse fusion coalition that has avoided the usual pitfalls of coalitions where groups with more institutional power dominate. It is redefining possibilities for a movement, around a broader platform than a typical campaign.”
Nic Smith, a fast-food worker with Fight for $15 in Virginia declared at a rally on Capitol Hill, “I’m poor, I’m white, and I’m here. This hillbilly is joining other poor people of all colors, all sexualities, all religions, to start the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Our backs are against the wall and we have no choice but to push.” At a time when our attention is misdirected by media concerned with tweets and e-mails, we need to find new ways to break through the distorted moral narrative in this country. Weeks before the launch of the campaign, we released “The Souls of Poor Folk” with the Institute for Policy Studies, an audit of America over the past 50 years. The report goes beyond anecdotal evidence to ground this campaign in empirical and historical analysis. It reveals how conditions have worsened and why this campaign is needed now more than ever.
We know that the issues of the day are bigger than the impoverished dichotomy of Republican versus Democrat or left versus right. The moral and spiritual health of this nation depends on our capacity to see deeper and more expansively. We are not aligned with a political party or a single election. There are no politicians who speak on our behalf.
In mid-June, at the height of our launch this summer, hundreds of people were denied entry to the state capitol building in Frankfort, Kentucky. After we had held weeks of actions inside the building, police announced that they would now only allow us in two at a time. The move was meant to quash momentum. Instead, it revealed the hypocrisy of a government that would bar access to health care, living wages, and the statehouse we pay for, while opening the doors to million-dollar lobbyists for industries that profit on violence. After massive media outcry and the threat of legal action, the state backed down. Weeks later, the Kentucky Poor People’s Campaign walked straight through the front doors, this time to deliver toothbrushes to the governor after his denial of dental benefits to some Medicaid recipients.
Our task is to build the power necessary to hold our political system to genuine account. In Washington, DC, as the launch neared its end, we petitioned members of Congress from both parties to hold a congressional hearing to listen to the demands of the campaign. While not one Republican replied, Democratic leaders from the House and Senate invited poor people from around the country to the US Capitol, this time without the risk of arrest. What ensued was nothing short of transformative. Aaron Scott, an organizer with Chaplains on the Harbor in Grays Harbor, Washington, explained, “We didn’t have a nice sit-down with Capitol Hill progressives. We staged a full-on narrative takeover…young black moms from Flint keeping them on the ropes. Generations of Appalachians eviscerating the myth that you can’t organize for revolution in the coal fields. Apache Stronghold women grieving for their sacred sites buried under concrete. Undocumented moms with their children in their arms closing us out in deafening chants. What I saw yesterday made it very clear that we have what it takes to build a politically independent force.”
During the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, thousands of people poured into Washington, DC, to build a six-week-long tent city on the National Mall. Resurrection City, they called it. Taking inspiration from that often-forgotten chapter of movement organizing, representatives from our many states gathered on the mall for a five-day organizing meeting. Nestled between the Washington Monument and the US Capitol, we met one another and shared lessons learned from our many struggles. On the longest day of the year, and the anniversary of the 1964 murders of Freedom Summer activists Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman, we took action together at the doors of the Capitol.
Two days later, thousands more came to the same spot on the mall to officially launch the campaign. On June 23, 2018, tens of thousands of people flooded the National Mall to call for an end to the war on the poor; over 400,000 joined online. Rev. Jesse Jackson, the mayor of the first Resurrection City, came and offered his support for the movement. The previous night the forecast had been 100 percent chance of rain. Yet the sun shone brilliantly that morning as poor people, faith leaders, and organizers claimed the stage that is rightfully theirs. We all stood under banners that read: “Fight Poverty, Not the Poor.”
This season of action was just the first phase and launch of a multiyear campaign. We have returned home to begin a phase of deep organizing and power building among the poor. This fall we will engage in mass voter registration and voter mobilization, not as an end in itself, but as a doorway into a movement. We will mobilize in our streets, communities, and at the sites of political and economic power. We will continue to build a nonviolent army of the poor that can do more than react, that can dictate the terms of this country’s future. A new and unsettling force is awakening to revive the heart of democracy in America.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. His latest book is Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is codirector of the Kairos Center, cofounder of the Poverty Initiative, national codirector of the Poor People’s Campaign, and author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor. She is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, and has spent the past two decades working with grassroots organizations across the United States.