On the night before Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, he invoked a lesson from biblical Egypt in a speech that is often called “Promised Land.” Pharaoh’s favorite formula for perpetuating slavery, he reminded us, was to keep the slaves fighting among themselves, for joined together they were too strong to subdue.
On that fateful eve in 1968, King used some of his final words to call for people of all colors to unite in a human rights revolution that would end destructive, entrenched poverty and prompt a radical redistribution of political and economic power. This outline for a path toward a modern day promised land was more than rhetoric. In fact, he and other leaders had already launched the Poor People’s Campaign, a movement that would bring together 50,000 of the nation’s poor for a march on Washington the next week, and that was supposed to kick off an extended fight against dehumanization, discrimination and poverty wages in the richest country in the world.
The movement stagnated after King’s assassination, but never have we needed it more. Even before the exacerbation of extremism that is Donald Trump, the evils of poverty, racism, militarism and environmental destruction were tearing apart the social fabric in America. While the situation was dire in 1968, today we have 60 percent more Americans living below the poverty line, eightfold more prison inmates, and double the gap between our government’s discretionary spending on the military and funding for anti-poverty programs, all the result of unjust policies and unchecked systemic racism.
Soaring inequality means that the richest 1 percent in our country now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, while extremist politicians in Washington fund more tax breaks for the wealthy by cutting critical services for the poor and middle class. More than 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, 23 states have adopted voter suppression laws in the past eight years alone.
Amid this frightening economic and moral decay, well-intentioned corporations, nonprofits and governments have turned Martin Luther King Jr. Day into a sanitized “day of service,” misappropriating the legacy of a man who went to his grave calling for a revolution. While struggling Americans are crushed beneath more than $1 trillion in credit card debt and more than 40 million poor people have no access to credit at all, credit card companies like American Express sponsor park cleanup service events in King’s name.
We are engaged in a desperate battle for the soul of this nation. What we urgently need on this Martin Luther King Day is not to commemorate the man, but to consecrate his movement for civil rights. We need a different kind of Martin Luther King Day, not one in which politicians pay homage to the man on the one hand, but pass vulgar policies on the other. In fact, we don’t need a day. We need a movement.
Last month, 50 years after King called for the original Poor People’s Campaign, we announced just such a movement to unite the poor, disenfranchised and marginalized in direct action and collective nonviolent civil disobedience across the nation. On Mother’s Day, we’ll launch a season of nonviolent civil disobedience with 40 consecutive days of action at two dozen state capitols and in Washington. Our movement’s direct action, voter education and mass mobilization is aimed at saving the soul of our nation.
As we traveled across the country to lay the groundwork for this campaign with trainings and mass meetings that drew tens of thousands, we heard from mothers whose children died because their states refused Medicaid expansion, homeless families attacked by police and militia groups, and families torn apart by unjust immigration policies. Trump and extremist politicians in Congress and statehouses have only intensified this misery, rising to power by using the oldest play in the holy book, which is Pharaoh’s scheme of dividing the poor and disenfranchised along racial, religious and other lines.
With his final public words, King reminded us that united we are stronger than the forces that oppress us. The surest way, then, to honor his legacy on the day that bears his name is to commit to standing up by the tens of thousands to demand change. Join with the Poor People’s Campaign in this peaceful revolution. Together, at last, we can begin our journey to Martin Luther King Jr.’s promised land.
Reverend William Barber II and Reverend Liz Theoharis are co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival