A conversation with campaign co-chair Rev. Liz Theoharis about finishing what MLK started.
Interview by Greg Kaufmann
May 13, 2018
This Mother’s Day, at a moment when people in poverty are facing unprecedented attacks on their basic living standards, a new Poor People’s Campaign launches.
It is reminiscent of the campaign Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began developing in 1967, five months prior to his assassination. King made his intention clear in his last sermon: “We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses.… We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.”
More than 50 years later, the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is coming to Washington. But it will be taking action in 39 states across the country, too. The first phase will be 40 days of direct actions, teach-ins, cultural events, and more. The campaign will then transition to voter registration and mobilization.
Many people are familiar with campaign co-chair the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, through his leadership of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina. (Barber is also The Nation’s civil-rights correspondent.) Less well-known is his fellow co-chair, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. Theoharis is the co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice. She has worked as an organizer with people in poverty for the past two decades, collaborating with groups like the National Union of the Homeless, the National Welfare Rights Union, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
I spoke with Reverend Theoharis about how poverty is viewed in America, the contours of the campaign, the role of the media, and what organizers hope to achieve in the first 40 days and beyond. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Greg Kaufmann: Is this campaign trying to tell a different story about poverty in America?
The Rev. Liz Theoharis: Yes; we are showing the deep reality of poverty where there are 140 million people who are poor or low-income in this country—where poverty affects close to half the US population. It affects people across all races, nationalities, ethnicities, geographies, genders, sexualities, ages, and religions.
[We need] to break through the current narrative in our society. That narrative is one that blames poor people for their poverty, pits us against each other, and claims that there’s scarcity when we’re really living in a society and world of abundance. We are going to do a sustained season of organizing [for 40 days]; it’s both to connect up, and wake people up, and say that you’re not alone and there is a movement to join—and also to shift the narrative in our country right now.
And what does that narrative shift look like? What is a more authentic narrative?
I think what needs to happen first is for people to deal with the reality of the injustices that are happening, and the intersections of those injustices in people’s lives. And to see that coming out of deep pain and suffering are people who have a set of demands and a program of resolutions to the problems in their communities: We need single-payer universal health care, we need full voting rights, we need decent housing for everyone, we need education that is equitable for our kids, we need higher education that’s free and available to anyone that wants it.
The story that we want to get out there is that right now there are 140 million people who are poor or low-income—that’s 43.5 percent of the population. So we’re not talking about some little group of people over there, and there is no small Band-Aid to fix it. We need a national discussion and national action in terms of policies that will lift people out of poverty, curb systemic racism, shift our war economy to a peace economy, and save the planet and everything living in it.
Have you run into any resistance to the word “poor”? In terms of people with low-incomes not wanting to identify as “poor,” or a feeling that it’s the wrong frame for a broad-based movement?
It hasn’t been an issue among poor people who are calling for this campaign. But sometimes progressive religious folks or people associated with colleges and universities worry about this. Our response is that the idea of a poor people’s campaign and a national call for a moral revival is coming from poor people ourselves. Also, there is a rich history in terms of poor people organizing across color lines in the ’68 Campaign, and in other moments in US history.
If we go back to our sacred texts and traditions—the Bible is a form of mass media that talks more about uplifting the poor than any other topic. This 40- to 50-year attack on poor people, of blaming poor people for their and everyone’s problems—how you counter that isn’t by throwing out the word poor, or only talking about the middle class, only talking about economic insecurity, without naming the reality that almost half the population in the United States is experiencing.
A big part of this campaign is about people hearing their names and hearing their condition and coming forward and saying, “This doesn’t have to be and I’m going to stand up with other people and fight for justice.” If you look at our demands, some of them are about broadening our understanding of who is poor and why people are poor. Because right now, in part due to how the media has portrayed poor people, a lot of times there is shame and blame associated with it. But as one of the steering-committee leaders said, “I don’t feel ashamed that I’m poor—I grew up in the poorest census district in the country. I think our society should feel ashamed about the kind of deep poverty that exists and I had to live through.”
The Poor People’s Campaign intentionally didn’t reach out to national organizations until late in the organizing effort. Can you talk about the reasons for that?
We believe this campaign is only going to be successful if it is a deep and wide organizing drive of poor people, of moral leaders, of all people of conscience, who think that these issues are a problem. And it has to come from the bottom up. And so we really started with grassroots leaders who had been doing work for a long time in their communities, or had just emerged because certain struggles were happening in their communities so they stepped forward to respond. We built very diverse coordinating committees in 39 states. It really is being led by people who are most impacted.
After we launched officially on December 4, 2017, national organizations came forward wanting to endorse. We have more than 100 now—and it’s a meaningful endorsement. We see national not as doing work in DC or having a PO box in DC, but as nationalizing state-based movements.
Can you walk us through the launch on Sunday and the 40-day “season of organizing”?
Sunday we will do a Mass Meeting—Reverend Barber and I will lead it—and some local DC folks will be involved, and we will livestream it nationally. And people in different states will gather for watch parties and rallies to prepare for the next day’s action. We’ll have these Mass Meetings on Sundays weekly. For 40 days, [direct] actions will continue to be on Mondays. On Tuesdays we’ll livestream teach-ins, on Thursdays we’ll nationally broadcast cultural events, and on [weekends] we’re in houses of worship and places of worship, where people will focus on weekly themesand get people involved. On June 23, we’ll launch the next stage in terms of people coming to DC for a massive mobilization and then going back to their homes to do organizing that is connected to voter registration and voter mobilization and education.
What can you tell me about what this Monday—this first day of direct action—looks like ideally?
Monday morning we will head from St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and to the US Capitol for a call to action, where leaders from different struggles around the country will have a chance to speak to why we’re building the campaign and what the campaign is calling for. Then Reverend Barber and I will explain how the action will take place, and then throughout the afternoon people will have a chance to continue to make connections with others that are there. So the actions are happening at the US Capitol and then simultaneously happening in more than 30 states.
What do you do to sustain the movement beyond these 40 days of action?
This is why the coordinating committees in the states have been set up for months now. The committees have connected with teams of lawyers, with teams that do nonviolent direct-action training; they’ve been doing a political-education process amongst their own leadership so that folks understand not just how to do this but why we’re doing this and what is going to be needed for the long haul. And also identifying cultural leaders, and singers and songwriters—components for what a state-based movement of people across all the different lines that divide us need in order to be successful.
Will the campaign be addressing some of the legislative fights going on right now—such as the proposed SNAP cuts and additional work requirements in the Farm Bill, Medicaid work requirements, and other issues that impact people’s basic needs?
We have posted a preliminary agenda and demands on the website, and they are a mix of federal and state policies. Some of them are reactive to current fights that are going on—from not cutting SNAP, not cutting [heating assistance], not having these work requirements. But then there are things that are more proactive—like single-payer universal health care and automatic voter registration at the age of 18. So we are trying to be be relevant and connected to the current fights that the people in this campaign are having to fight. Like currently in Michigan there is a water crisis, so if there is anything that can help people immediately, we have to take up that fight. But we also have to not just react—to put out visionary and necessary demands that would translate into making everybody’s lives better.
While the heart of the campaign is clearly consistent with Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign—in looking at poverty, ecological destruction, militarism, and systemic racism—are there some key differences as well?
Yes. What Dr. King was talking about was bringing 3,000 of the poorest citizens from about 10 communities across the country to Washington, DC, and staying there until people’s demands were met. It’s really important for us not to just have people come to DC but have people doing actions and organizing in their states. Also, we called for this 40 days, so we’re not staying until everything is met.
We’re doing something historic—historians have told us that there’s never been this kind of direct action at state capitols in a coordinated way for a sustained period of time. And we’ve never had so many people go into the US Capitol and engage in nonviolent direct action, and then keep on returning. So it’s not a one-off mobilization.
Dr. King called for a Poor People’s Campaign in December of ’67, and was killed in April of ’68. The first meeting of the 25 different organizations and leaders—Native Americans, white Appalachians, Latino folks—it was two, maybe three weeks before King was killed. So we also hope that we have more time to keep building these bonds across lines that divide us—especially race, geography, issue, gender and sexuality—and that we can mature in terms of a movement.
The campaign is very clear that it is nonpartisan—that the problems and solutions are not the domain of any single party. That said, have you had Republicans turn out and participate?
Yes. Of the more than 1,000 people who have been engaged in the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and gotten arrested, more than 11 percent of those folks were registered, active Republicans. In some of the homeless organizing and welfare-rights organizing I come out of, we’ve had people from all kind of political beliefs who are impacted by poverty come forward and play leadership roles. And we’ve definitely experienced that in communities where Trump won by a lot, or where Mitch McConnell has dominated politics forever; people in those communities are saying, “We need this. These issues have been going on for far too long, and people are being impacted and dying because they don’t have health care.” It isn’t just uniting progressive people, but instead uniting people around what’s right and wrong.
Anything I’ve not asked you about that you want people to know heading into May 14?
It’s really important to see the grassroots nature of this work and pay attention to the leaders in the more than 30 states across the country and in the District of Columbia who wake up every day thinking, “How do we build a poor people’s campaign? How do we pull off a moral revival in this nation?” People like those in Lowndes County, Alabama, who have raw sewage in their yards, and in El Paso, Texas, who get four minutes—once every 15 years—to hug their relative in the Rio Grande. Or folks living in Grays Harbor, Washington, in a homeless encampment of predominantly poor, white millennials.
Out of those struggles people are uniting and organizing and calling for real systemic change. It reminds me of this quote from Dr. King, when he said: “The poor of this nation live in a cruelly unjust society. If they could be helped to take action together they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” And I think this new and unsettling force of poor people across race, geography, religion, gender, and sexuality—are rising in this nonviolent army. I think something big is happening, and we need everyone to be a part of it.