Fifty years after MLK’s death, activists revive his most radical project: the Poor People’s Campaign. Interview with Salon.

By Paul Rosenberg
May 20, 2018

Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. first launched the idea in the last months of his life, this past week saw the kickoff of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, starting with an initial 40-day period of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. Described as “a moral fusion coalition that is multi-racial, multi-gendered, intergenerational, inter-faith and constitutionally grounded,” it shares King’s commitment to fighting the “Triplets of Evil” — systemic racism, poverty, and the war economy and militarism — but adds the interrelated problem of ecological devastation.

Unlike the original, this new campaign is not solely focused on bringing the moral witness of the poor to the nation’s capital. It is simultaneously organizing in dozens of states as well, and building coalitions of poor people’s power in those states is the core of its long-term strategy.

“We had a very powerful launch on Monday, in more than 30 states, and in Washington, D.C.,” the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the campaign, told Salon. Along with her co-chair, the Rev. William J. Barber II, she was arrested in front of the Capitol, along with hundreds of others from dozens of states, plus many more in state capitals as well — from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Sacramento, California. Theoharis estimated that 1,000 people were arrested. “People are saying it’s the most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in this country’s history,” she said.

Others arrested with Barber and Theoharis in Washington included Women’s March board member Linda Sarsour, Service Employees International Union executive vice president Rocio Sáenz, and Disciples of Christ general minister and president the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens.

Theoharis and Barber both have decades of grassroots organizing experience, and spent two years on a listening tour laying the foundations for the campaign. As part of the buildup, they helped create a policy document, The Souls of Poor Folks, written by the Institute for Policy Studies. Their activism, both say, comes just as much from their own faith struggles as well.

Protesters carried banners reading “Fight Poverty, Not the Poor,” highlighting a moral and theological concern so central to  Theoharis’ work that she wrote a book about it, “Always With Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor.” Properly interpreting the Bible’s teachings about the poor today, she told Salon, is as important as properly interpreting its teachings about slavery and liberation was in the decades leading up to the Civil War. While poverty is sinful, “being poor isn’t,” she writes in the preface. It is one thing “to affirm that God loves the poor, but it is the collective responsibility of Christians and all people of faith and conscience to eliminate poverty. What is ‘good news for the poor’ if it is not ending the poverty and suffering in this life? What do we mean when we pray, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’?”

Protesters also carried signs saying, “Nothing Would Be More Tragic Than to Turn Back Now,” words from Martin Luther King Jr., on which Barber focused during a recent Memphis rally commemorating King’s presence and commitment there shortly before his assassination. That was when King made his famous last speech, telling his audience, “I have been to the mountaintop.”

“We must remember,” Barber said, “that before he ever said anything about the mountaintop, he said we must give ourselves to this struggle, because nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now. He said that we must rise up with a greater readiness … because you dishonor the movement and dishonor a prophet, if you just remember the prophet without having a revival of the movement that the prophet stood for.”

For almost 40 years now, conservatives have dominated the conversation about religion and politics in America, promoting their narrow moral agenda, centered on defending Puritan sexual strictures and dividing the country between “sinners” and “the saved.” In 2016, however, they threw all that out the window to support Donald Trump in record numbers. Their façade has cracked, and the time is ripe for an authentic American gospel politics to re-emerge.

“We must challenge every lying preacher who strives to pray — p-r-a-y — and sanction unjust leaders, while those leaders are preying — p-r-e-y-i-n-g — on the poor.” Barber said. “We must turn this nation around, until we are one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all, because nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.”

Salon spoke to the Rev. Liz Theoharis about why the Poor People’s Campaign is happening now, how it differs from King’s original and how it echoes earlier activist movements as well.

It’s been 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. helped launch the Poor People’s Campaign. He was assassinated while it was still in the planning phase. Why launch a second Poor People’s Campaign now?

It is clear from us traveling around the country – and we been doing this for months and years now – that people are ready to come together in new ways and fight for universal single-payer health care, equitable education for kids, voting rights and anti-poverty programs, because things are very bad today. There’s 140 million poor people in this country – poor or low- income – there’s fewer voting rights than there were 50 years ago, there’s ecological devastation wreaking havoc on the planet. We have spent 53 cents of every discretionary dollar on the military, and only 15 cents on antipoverty programs.

So we launch it today, 50 years after the 1968 campaign, because people are telling us the time is now for a Poor People’s Campaign. If we don’t conquer these evils of systemic racism and poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and a distorted moral narrative — that blames people for their poverty, that claims there’s not enough, that pits people against each other — that we will never be able to achieve the justice that people need and is possible.

What’s similar and what has changed since 1968?

We do get great inspiration from the Poor People’s Campaign 50 years ago. We have conducted this audit where we have found that 60 percent more people are poor today, we have fewer voting rights, these issues that I was talking about. What we have been able to learn from that campaign is that it’s important for grassroots leaders across the country to take hold of a campaign of their own, to engage in 40 days of nonviolent civil disobedience, to start having a national conversation on the issues that are plaguing our society and to build power of people from below.

So when we were in El Paso, Texas, when we were in Youngstown, Alabama, when we were in Grays Harbor, Washington, when we were in Detroit, Michigan, we heard, in these very different places, the same need: To organize and unite poor people and moral leaders, and all people of conscience into a nonviolent intergenerational army of freedom for the poor.

Today, Dr. King is a revered historical figure, whom all sorts of people try to claim. But that was not the case when he died, he was very unpopular and the causes he was working on have remained neglected and marginalized — especially his work on the Poor People’s Campaign. By focusing on a single phrase, “the content of their character,” his thought has even been stood on its head.

You’ve devoted a lot of work to explicating how the same could be said of Jesus as well. His teachings about the poor have been perverted or ignored, especially in the Gospel of Matthew. What were they really saying? What common themes do they have that we need to pay attention to?

This quote from Dr. King — “True compassion isn’t tossing a coin to a beggar, it is restructuring an edifice that produces beggars” — I think actually sums up much of what King stood for, and much of what Jesus stood for, in terms of the question of poverty.

It’s a structural critique, of how it’s not the individual fault of poor people, but that it’s the whole system that impoverishes. It’s a critique of Band-aid solutions, of charity over justice. And it talks about how change happens. Change doesn’t happen just because you will it into being, or because a couple people in power say it’s going to be so. Both King and Jesus were leaders of broad-based social movements of impacted people, moral leaders who had come forward saying that what was happening in that society at the time was a moral crisis.

So what is clear to me from Jesus’s life, and message, is that the key concern is lifting up the poor and the marginalized. If you do not see that that is the key concern of the gospel, then you’re actually missing the point. That one in four passages in the Bible are about justice. When evangelicals cut the words poor and poverty and oppressed out of the Bible, it literally falls apart. This is very connected to the problem that we’re seeing today, because we’ve gotten a perverted kind of gospel that blames poor people for their poverty, calls poor people sinners, and does not say not that poverty is a sin in the eyes of our sacred tradition.

I think this is true about Jesus, and also when we look at King. You said that King in his last years was a very unpopular man. The day after he comes out against the Vietnam War, in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, 168 newspapers and organizations condemn him for it. And two or three days before he’s killed is the first needing of this minority leaders group, of Native folk and Jewish folk, Chicanos and Puerto Ricans, Appalachian whites and poor blacks from the North and South, where folks come together to think about the Poor People’s Campaign.

They didn’t have very much time to try to get people onto the same page about what a Poor People’s Campaign could really do. So many people had left and were not supportive of the idea. So it meant that when he was killed, a lot of the energy and vision of what that campaign could be really struggled to go on. Much to this nation’s disgrace, we have paid a huge price for that.

You’ve written about how Jesus’ words have been used to pervert that understanding to blame the poor, or to accept that poverty is just God’s will. How does that connect to what you’re doing now?

I’ve been engaged in antipoverty organizing, grassroots organizing, for 25 years of my life. I got involved in the National Union of the Homeless and the National Welfare Rights Union — efforts of poor people to come together and win demands and rights for poor people, and for all people.  And in the course of this 25 years, almost every week somebody comes forward quoting that scripture: “The poor will be with you always.” Sometimes to blame the poor and say really cruel, awful things; sometimes to say that poverty is unfortunate, but it’s inevitable, and that if God wanted to end poverty, then God would do so.

I believe in reinterpreting this passage, and talking about our sacred traditions and what the Bible really say  about poverty — which is a message of liberation, a message that God is on the side of the poor and marginalized, and that God is with people as they stand up to fight injustice. The Bible is a compilation of stories of poor people coming together to right the wrongs of society, with God on their side.

I really believe that looking at the sacred texts — and especially that passage, “the poor will be with you always” — is similar to the work that abolitionists had to do back when they were working to end slavery. Which is that there was a Bible produced back then that didn’t include Exodus, that didn’t include the prophets, that took out all the passages were Jesus was talking about freedom to the captives. Folks — slaveholders, basically — preached a gospel of “Slaves, obey your masters.”

But you had folks like Harriet “Moses” Tubman, who led the Underground Railroad, or Frederick Douglass or William Lloyd Garrison. So many of those leaders of that movement found great inspiration from their religion, Christianity, to fight slavery and to fight for abolition.

I think today we have a similar battle on our hands. As long as people think the Bible condones poverty, as long as people think God wills poverty to exist, it will be very difficult for us to build the movement to end poverty, and to lift millions of people out of poverty. The Bible actually tell story after story of bringing good news to the poor. What is good news, if not the fact that everyone can have health care, and everyone can have good wages, and everyone can have food, and everyone can have housing. It’s there and it’s what God wills.

So if we take that message seriously, how should we change how we see America today, and how should it change us?

You might know that when King, the week that he was killed, he calls his mom, and said what his sermon is going to be, that following Sunday, and it was ‘Why America May Be Going to Hell.” If we look now, 50 years later, we have 140 million poor people in this country, with fewer voting rights than we had 50 years ago. There are 4 million homes where, when they turned on the water this morning, poisoned water with lead came out. This kind of crisis that we’re in is so deep, so rooted in immorality. But at this point, so few people of faith are challenging this kind of immorality,

When we were starting the Poor People’s Campaign, we mapped out the states that had the highest levels of voter suppression, the 23 states that have enacted voter suppression laws, since 2010, and the we overlaid that with the map of where the states have the highest poverty — the highest child poverty, the lowest wages — the least environmental protection, the least protection of immigrants or the least protection of LGBTQ folks. All these different issues overlapped.

But also overlaid on that map were the highest concentrations of people who consider themselves Protestant evangelicals, and those maps are more or less the same. So we have the Bible Belt and the Poverty Belt being pretty much similar. We have evangelical Christians living in places where there is environmental and racial poverty and injustice happening. We have has silence for too long, especially people of faith. The heart of the gospel is about justice for the poor, justice for the marginalized, justice for children. It’s so important for us to do this work, hand in hand, as we travel around the country, and call for this national moral revival.

Today’s Poor People’s Campaign has been conceived to build from the bottom up. What is the plan for the remainder of the first 40 days, — and beyond?

The plan is that on Mondays for the next five weeks, folks will engage in nonviolent civil disobedience, nonviolent direct action and building power from the ground up in the states. We have different themes for different weeks: This coming week we’re focusing on systemic racism, in particular voter suppression, and the way that is an attack on our democracy and hurts everybody, and the connection to economic justice. We’re also looking at immigration and the mistreatment of Native American indigenous communities, and how all those things are tied to the 140 million poor people in the country.

Week 3 focuses on the war economy and militarism and the proliferation of gun violence. Week 4 focuses on the right to health and a healthy planet, making connections between health care and ecological devastation, The fifth week’s focus is that everybody has a right to live, looking at issues of living wages, education and health care — all the things people need to not just survive, but to thrive. Then, in Week 6, we have all people coming together and rising up and organizing and building.

From D.C. every week we’re doing national televised broadcasts and teach-ins, we’re doing cultural events. We will culminate for the last week of the 40 days with an encampment, kind of a vigil, with the mass mobilization on June 23 that is really about next steps — about people committing to go back into their communities and build deeply-rooted grassroots moral movements based in these different states. We’ll do voter registration, voter mobilization, community organizing, contributing, continuing to build power. Really the vision is that this is a launch of a multiyear campaign that’s really about building a grassroots social movement to conquer these moral injustices that are hurting everybody.

What can people do to support your work?

Great, we need everybody. On the Poor People’s Campaign website — there is an interactive map, with all the different states are participating in this campaign, that shows where the Monday trainings and actions are taking place, and where the watch parties and different events are happening. This movement needs anybody who sees that were living in a crisis, and that it requires many of us to stand in the gap, to come forward and say people have been hurt for too long, silent for too long, and we’re not going to be silent anymore. We’re going to put our bodies on the line. We’re going to be willing to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience and organizing, to move toward building a moral movement that will make this country good for everybody.