By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
May 8, 2020
Sitting in the same Lincoln Memorial that offered the backdrop for Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech, President Trump staged a Fox News event last Sunday evening to claim that the time has come to reopen America. Bizarre as the scene seemed to anyone familiar with the legacy of Dr. King, it wasn’t an original concept. For weeks, protesters defying stay-at-home orders have appealed to the civil disobedience of Rosa Parks as justification for their actions. They claim a right to be “free” from any obligation to care for their neighbors by staying home to slow the spread of a deadly virus.
But the freedom that King, Parks, and millions of other Americans risked their own lives to pursue is the opposite of the capitulation to corporate greed that “reopen” extremists advocate. To keep faith with Parks and King in this moment, we must disobey all calls to go back to a way of life in which the extreme inequality that this pandemic has exposed is considered normal.
As the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States passed the 1 million mark without a single state meeting the Trump administration’s own recommendations for reopening, 21 states have either lifted restrictions or failed to impose them at all. Governors are opting to prioritize getting the economy going again over the health of us all. And the data is clear: Americans who have suffered from systemic racism for generations are being hit hardest by this disease.
When Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and the civil rights movement appealed to Lincoln’s legacy of emancipation, they were clear that Americans needed freedom from the exploitation of a system that demanded some people suffer so that others could prosper. Indeed, the March on Washington that led to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was explicitly a march for “jobs and justice.” If King were with us today, he would no doubt be saying what he said in 1968 as he was working to build the original Poor People’s Campaign. “Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power so that the government cannot elude our demands…. it would be the height of naïveté to wait passively until the administration had somehow been infused with such blessings of goodwill that it implored us for our programs.”
Neither King nor any of America’s great advocates for freedom could be satisfied with America’s response to the coronavirus crisis. While the Trump administration bungled mitigation and has yet to develop the national testing and tracing system we need, the four relief bills that Congress has passed so far also do not address the real needs of many Americans. Because these bills have no provisions for permanent wages, paid sick leave for all, or health insurance for the uninsured, poor and low-income people are being pushed back into work that could kill them and many of their neighbors. The relief bills we have seen leave out the majority of homeless people, undocumented immigrants, the disabled, and many poor people who are not counted in the unemployment numbers. The bills place a four-month moratorium on eviction filings. They do not include rent freezes or large-scale debt forgiveness.
The government has not implored us for our programs, but today’s Poor People’s Campaign has taken bold action to organize our strength in this moment, as King suggested half a century ago. Since the first days of this pandemic, poor and dispossessed people along with moral activists and allies have been taking lifesaving action born out of necessity to demand justice. In Detroit, the People’s Water Board and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization forced the city government to enact a moratorium on water shutoffs and to turn water service back on for $25 payments. In Northern California, Moms 4 Housing, the California Homeless Union, and the California Poor People’s Campaign have taken over vacant houses and organized to protect tent encampments and spread rent strikes that are poised to grow as unemployment continues to balloon. In Pennsylvania, Put People First! PA have fought the closure of rural hospitals across the state and worked to erase the medical debt of thousands of people. Now, they are demanding the reopening of Philadelphia’s Hahnemann Hospital, which was recently bought by a real estate speculator and sits empty.
Poor people know they cannot wait passively for goodwill or Band-Aids. It will take a moral fusion movement of wounded healers from all races, religions, genders, geographies, and issue areas to stand together and build power for change. That is the kind of movement that gave meaning to Dr. King’s position in front of the Lincoln Memorial when he gave the final speech at the March on Washington. Though Trump’s team and the propagandists at Fox News thought they could co-opt the optics of that iconic moment, our actual history speaks more powerfully to the present than they could have known. Though we often remember King’s speech by its concluding lines, “I have a dream…,” his working title in the weeks leading up to the March on Washington was the call we must heed now: “Normalcy—Never Again.”
No, America cannot go back to normal. We must stay in place, stay alive, organize, and build power to demand that everyone will have the right to all that is essential to survive and thrive, both during this pandemic and beyond. This is why the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is organizing the largest virtual gathering of poor people and their allies on June 20, 2020, to declare “Normalcy—Never Again!”
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is co-chair 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 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.