Image above: Americans, young and old, dwell in Resurrection City, made of tents and wooden shanties, during the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, in Washington, D.C.
In the summer of 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. visited homes in the hamlet of Marks, Mississippi. Later he remembered the hundreds of children who lacked shoes. A mother told King that her children had no clothes for school. The Nobel laureate wept openly. “They didn’t even have any blankets to cover their children up on a cold night,” he recalled. “And I said to myself, God does not like this.” Then he vowed, “We are going to say in no uncertain terms that we aren’t going to accept it any longer. We’ve got to go to Washington in big numbers.”
In March 1968, King brought together a group of more than 50 leaders representing Black Belt sharecroppers, Appalachian coal miners, Chicano farmworkers, and American Indians, among others, to join the Poor People’s Campaign. The poor, “both white and Negro, live in a cruelly unjust society,” he said. “If they can 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.”
America’s sickness was spiritual—and would be terminal, King insisted, unless we experienced a “radical revolution of values.” A shift to the left or the right could not save us; only a movement that changed the moral narrative could refocus our priorities on building a society that honored the dignity of every person. This country had to be born again—not only in budgets and policy decisions, but in spirit.
The preacher in King knew that such a moral revival could not simply be spoken into existence. Poor people, who are so often pitted against one another, needed to unite in a national campaign of direct action to save America’s soul, King told the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Today we face a national crisis that is in many ways an intensifying of the storm that rocked America in 1968. But too often, our attempts to diagnose what ails us cannot get past the tired debates of left-versus-right politics. King’s analysis was that interlocking systems of violence, literal and metaphorical—which he called racism, poverty, and militarism—blinded most Americans to the lives of people in places like Marks. Until a Poor People’s Campaign compelled Americans to see “them” as “us,” the ideal of America would remain beyond reach.
Four diseases, all connected, now threaten the nation’s social and moral health: racism, poverty, environmental devastation, and the war economy—sanctified by the heresy of Christian nationalism. Since the 2016 presidential election, when white rage propelled a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan into the White House, racism has been more prominent in public life. Nearly every politician in the United States condemned “hate” after the violence by anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer. Racism and white supremacy, however, are not about hate. They are about power.
The question is not whether politicians condemn hate, but whether they promote the policy agenda of white supremacy. Since 2010, we have seen an assault on voting rights in numerous state legislatures, which the Supreme Court exacerbated in 2013 by gutting a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act. The states that attack voting rights by using partisan gerrymandering, discriminatory voter-identification requirements, or a rollback of early voting and same-day registration are also home to the lowest wages, the severest poverty, the greatest hostility toward immigrants and the LGBT community, and the deepest cuts in education funding. Politicians who try to suppress voting are using their power to hurt the poor and the working class—white, brown, and black.
In the richest society in human history, nearly half of the population lives in poverty or is struggling to make ends meet. More than half of African American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latino workers are paid less than $15 an hour. In the South, half of all jobs pay less than $15 an hour. During the past five years, state legislatures have stepped in to override many of the municipalities where the “Fight for $15” has succeeded.
Meanwhile, the nation’s economic growth, especially since the Great Recession, has overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest among us. Wall Street got bailouts while working Americans saw their jobs shipped overseas or outsourced to contractors. The top 400 taxpayers earn an average of $97,000 an hour, while people are arrested for protesting because they can’t survive on $7.25 an hour, the minimum that Washington requires.
Environmental dangers also disproportionately hurt the poor. In Flint, Michigan, poor people can buy unleaded gasoline but can’t get unleaded water from the tap. Oil companies are drilling for natural gas on Apache lands, penetrating the aquifers. Coal ash has spilled into rivers, and pipelines are being built through sacred territory. Federal deregulation is opening the door to new fossil-fuel exploration and mining in Alaska, contributing to climate change and scarring native lands.
The unending war economy has made everything worse. Out of each discretionary federal dollar spent, 54 cents goes to the military. This is money that is not spent on health care, education, affordable housing, or infrastructure. We’ve paid more than $4 trillion since 2001 to fight the War on Terror while claiming that we lack the resources to furnish decent medical care for every American.
Our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough money. It’s that we don’t have the moral capacity to face what ails our society.
While a thorough analysis of America’s moral malady may tempt us to despair, it also brings us face-to-face with the ethical challenge that inspired the first Poor People’s Campaign. The children in Marks made King weep, just as pictures of children burned by napalm in Vietnam had brought him to tears, because he knew that their cruel reality wasn’t inevitable. As James Baldwin wrote: “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.” To King, the Poor People’s Campaign was about America’s need for another Reconstruction—for an acknowledgment that a system of race-based slavery had created the inequality that had been passed down to the present day.
This confluence of troubles may seem overwhelming. It suggests, however, that the only way out is for people directly harmed by the economic and political system to fight as one against the few who benefit from it.
In 1968, the idea—a Poor People’s Campaign to unite activists from across the nation and bring them to Washington to shut down the government, to bring the issue of poverty compellingly to the fore—looked impossible. Except there was no other way. The tent city in Washington was snuffed out after six weeks by riot police and tear gas. Even so, the campaign had a lasting influence on national policies, as seen in the additional spending for Head Start, subsidized school lunches and food programs in poverty-stricken counties, and the creation of the Children’s Defense Fund, which has pushed legislation to help poor children and families for the past half century.
Still, we have never completed the Reconstruction that our federal government admitted was necessary after the Civil War. Just as the Poor People’s Campaign proposed, the Reconstruction we need now must arise from the efforts of people harmed directly by racism, poverty, environmental degradation, and the war economy. That is the inspiration for the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which is coordinating direct actions across the country that will begin in May. Activists in at least 32 states and Washington, D.C., will join in 40 days of civil disobedience, including an encampment in the nation’s capital, in hopes of building the power of the poor and the working class to reset the national agenda.
Only by joining together and asserting our authority as children of God can we shift the moral narrative in this nation and create a movement that will challenge those in power to form the “more perfect union” to which we aspire. Now as in 1968, this notion looks impossible. Except, again, there is no other way.
This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “A New Poor People’s Campaign.”