‘The Center of Gravity is in the Local Work’: Liz Theoharis on the Poor People’s Campaign

Rev Dr Liz Theoharis interviewed by Erik Gunn
The Progressive
May 1, 2019

An ordained Presbyterian minister and veteran social justice organizer, the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis co-chairs the Poor People’s Campaign with the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. Founded half a century ago by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the campaign was revived in late 2017 by Barber and Theoharis to empower the nation’s poor and marginalized people, and help build coalitions to address their challenges.

In May and June of 2018, the campaign undertook “Forty Days of Moral Action” around the country to draw attention to poverty, militarism, injustice, worker rights, and other social injustices. In June of this year, the campaign will focus on Washington, D.C., gathering for a People’s Moral Action Congress.

Theoharis founded and co-directs the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and is coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. I spoke with her by telephone about the campaign, nonviolent civil disobedience, and what’s wrong with the “Religious Left.”

Q: How do you measure the success of the campaign so far?

Theoharis: [Last year] we had tens of thousands of people coming to the rallies, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. Now, we have fourteen national faith bodies that are active and more than a hundred national organizations that have also endorsed it. There’s a growing infrastructure of community leaders, of faith leaders, of poor people, of advocates and activists across the country, many of whom before the Poor People’s Campaign hadn’t been working together.

Q: Tell me about the bus tours the campaign is conducting.

Theoharis: The idea is to shine a light on both the conditions in marginalized communities—pollution, climate change, the war economy—and also the creative tactics people are using to bring the issues and their work to the forefront.

Always in history, when those most impacted by injustice band together with moral leaders and advocates, that’s when change begins to happen. We don’t believe in helicopter leadership; we’re not trying to form a new national organization. The center of gravity is in the local work that people are doing to build a deep and broad and strong foundation for an actual movement for the long haul.

It was amazing to be in Kansas and Arkansas and Alabama and Kentucky and California and Michigan and see what it looks like to have local leaders determine how they can best use the connections they already have and make new connections and grow.

In Kentucky, during our “40 days of direct action,” [authorities] passed a regulation specific to the campaign that only two people could enter the capitol at a time—essentially blocking the power of people acting in concert together. Since that time, though, folks were able to work and get the attorney general [to assert that the rule broke Kentucky state law].

Q: Tell me about outreach to bridge that urban-rural divide that’s so talked about.

Theoharis: I think that this is a real strength of the campaign. What Dr. Martin Luther King said when he called for the Poor People’s Campaign more than fifty years ago is something we’ve tried to learn from. If you can bring in poor Latinos and poor whites and poor blacks into a powerful organizing drive, along with doctors and lawyers and nurses and plumbers, that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.

[Last year] we held hearings with Senators [and] House of Representative leaders, where they didn’t get to talk, they listened, to the reality of people’s lives and the demands that have come out of that reality.

At our hearings, there were cattle ranchers and family farmers and undocumented immigrants, and urban factory workers, and homeless folks from small towns and bigger cities, all there together organizing and seeing the connections between the problems that they’re having.

Q: Your answer suggests the goal is to connect people who are the focus of the campaign to each other.

Theoharis: We are definitely about politicians getting to hear the reality. But, yeah, one of the things that’s really important is helping people take action together. We aren’t waiting for folks to come and save us.

What our Souls of Poor Folks Audit shows is that we have 60 percent more poor people today than we did fifty years ago. We’re not partisan, but we’re deeply political; and those politics are about connecting up people and folks working and demanding change and staying organized and returning until they get that change.

Q: Talk about the role of civil disobedience.

Theoharis: Our country is facing an emergency. You have to do things to break through. So people are engaging in all forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. Occupying statehouses and being arrested for saying, “We’re not going to go home until these issues are met.” Blocking traffic outside of state capitols and saying, “We have to disrupt traffic and make sure that people notice the real issues and real problems facing so many people in this state.”

In Kansas, when folks were arrested trying to enter the capitol, the language used when they were charged was about how they had basically violated the capitol—as if the capitol was a victim to poor people and clergy coming together and talking about how they’ve been victims to low wages and the lack of healthcare and policies that hurt the poor.

It’s not a crime for poor people to starve to death in this country. It’s not illegal for people to die because they don’t have health care in this country. It’s not illegal to be homeless on the streets of this country—but it is illegal to come together and try to get our state or our nation to raise its wages and make sure that everyone has health care.

Q: What do headlines calling the Poor People’s Campaign the “religious left” get wrong?

Theoharis: We don’t accept this terminology. When you’re talking about the “religious right,” how can you call people “right” who you think are doing such wrong things? And we’re not the Left! I’m a pastor, I’m a Biblical scholar, and at the core, the heart, the center of our sacred text—in my case, the Bible—there are 2,500 passages about how you’re supposed to treat the poor, the immigrant, the marginalized.

If you were to cut the poor out of the Bible, it would fall apart.

That’s not a “left” issue, that’s not a “right” issue, that’s what’s at the center, the heart, of our faith tradition.

We have people from all political viewpoints engaged. We have evangelicals and atheists and reformed Jews engaged. This conversation about “left” and “right,” especially when it comes to our faith traditions, just is too puny.

Read Erik Gunn’s story on the Poor People’s Campaign in our April/May issue.