The Poor People’s Campaign Launched on Mother’s Day 2018

The Nation
By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis
May 14, 2023

On Mother’s Day five years ago, we at Repairers of the Breach and the Kairos Center launched the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival with 40 days of moral fusion direct action. Some historians called those six weeks of actions at dozens of state capitals across the country simultaneously the largest and most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in history. That Mother’s Day of 2018, we gathered for a mass meeting at National City Church in Washington, D.C., and highlighted the devastating reality that 140 million poor and low-income people live in the richest country in the history of the world. We lamented the fact that 700 people die each day from poverty and inequality, that more than half of all kids are living in food insecure homes, and that too many moms have to bury their children because they lack health care, or because of gun violence and other forms of policy failure, while others struggle to keep a roof over their heads and all the essentials of life. None of this is natural or unavoidable—it is the result of bad policy. 

The Poor People’s Campaign launched on Mother’s Day and culminated in a season of nonviolent direct action on the summer solstice in an effort to birth light, to shine a spotlight on poverty and low wealth in the nation. And five years later, that light still burns and must burn even brighter. Over these years, the Poor People’s Campaign has built coordinating committees of poor and impacted people, clergy and moral leaders, advocates and activists in states across the country.

In 2019, at the first-ever Poor People’s Moral Action Congress, we held the largest forum in the 2020 election season, challenging nine candidates to take up the issues of poverty, racism, climate and militarism in public policy. In 2020, we sponsored the largest social media gathering of poor and low-income people, with millions of people joining an online Mass Poor People’s Assembly. In 2021, despite a protracted public health crisis, we continued to shift the narrative and build power among the 140 million poor and low-income people through demonstrations, online assemblies and a season of nonviolent moral direct action.

Last year, on June 18, 2022, we held the Mass Poor People’s and Low Wage Worker’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington where thousands gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue to hear the stories and solutions of poor and low-income people, advocates, clergy and their allies. We then continued our march to the polls, reaching out to more than 7 million poor and low-income low-voting-propensity people in key states who have the power to shift the political calculus toward a moral agenda.

Over these years, we have published reports documenting the breadth and depth of the interlocking injustices including the “Souls of Poor Folks Audit,” the “Poor People’s Moral Budget,” the “Poor People’s Pandemic Report,” the “Third Reconstruction Agenda,” and more. We have inspired congressional leaders to introduce a Third Reconstruction Resolution calling on elected officials to deepen their resolve to fully address poverty and low wages from the bottom up while we keep up pressure in the streets, the suites, and the legislatures.

Despite starting to shift the narrative, impact public policy, and build power among poor and low-wealth people, however, we have much more work to do. Even in the midst of a pandemic when one party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency, there was a refusal to make the Child Tax Credit and other programs permanent. There was a refusal to pass living wages and universal health care.

And now, the work must grow immensely. Given continued inflation; cuts to SNAP, Medicaid, and other programs of social uplift; attacks on bodily autonomy; the whitewashing of history in education; and other struggles for rights and dignity, this is no time to pat ourselves on the back. Instead, we must tell the truth more; we must force the public to see more clearly the pain and power of systemic racism, poverty, and ecological devastation; the denial of health care; the war economy; and the false narrative of religious nationalism. And we must demand change.

Normally, campaigns wind down after a few years and series of activities. But we in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival must wind up. Just a few weeks ago, researchers at the University of California–Riverside identified poverty as the fourth-greatest cause of death in the United States; they wrote, “Poverty kills as much as dementia, accidents, stroke, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.”

In the face of this, we are inspired by freedom fighters who came before. We must embrace the wisdom and power of Frederick Douglass: “All measures devised and executed with a view to allay and diminish…only [serve] to increase, intensify, and embolden that agitation.” Like the prophet Isaiah said, we must “cry loud and spare not and tell the nation of its sin.” And like the Declaration of Independence said, we must begin challenging “the long train of abuses.”

So on this Mother’s Day, we remember mothers of the movement like Rachel in the Bible, who refused to stop her protest in the face of evil leaders. We remember Mother Jones, who declared, “You ought to be out raising hell. This is the fighting age. Put on your fighting clothes.” And as all the mothers in the movement get up every day saying “no” to reality as it is and declaring, as mother and grandmother Yara Allen says, “Somebody’s hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long and we won’t be silent anymore.”

Across the country, state campaigns and local coordinating committees led by poor and directly impacted leaders, religious leaders, and advocates are dressed for this moral fight. We are mobilizing and organizing on all roads leading towards the annual June national pulling point as the Poor People’s Campaign—our Moral Poverty Action Congress in Washington, D.C.

Together, we will continue raising demands to end poverty and low wages from the bottom up. We will move forward together, not one step back.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is cochair 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.

Featured image: The Rev. Dr. William Barber, cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign speaks at the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival rally at the US Supreme Court Building on October 27, 2021. (Jemal Countess / Getty)