Resurrecting the Poor People’s Campaign

Rev. William Barber of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina is leading a resurrection of the Poor People’s Campaign 50 years later. Before his assassination, Martin Luther King had worked tirelessly to organize the 1968 Campaign to address poverty in the United States.

Thousands of people were committed to going to Washington, DC, to carry out large public demonstrations and massive nonviolent civil disobedience, so large as to interrupt regular business in Washington. In March of 1968, over 50 multiracial organizations came together with the SCLC in Atlanta to join the Poor People’s Campaign. Then Dr. King was assassinated—it seemed to thwart the tidal wave of this campaign.

After King’s assassination and the resulting disarray among the ranks of King’s former aides in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the effort lost much of its steam. However, the Campaign continued under the leadership of the new president of the SCLC, Ralph Abernathy, and many of us participated. It climaxed in the Solidarity Day Rally for “Jobs, Peace, and Freedom” on June 19, 1968, as 100,000 people joined the 2,000 participants living in Resurrection City on the Mall.

The Poor People’s Campaign fell short of its goal to win significant anti-poverty legislation. It did, however, mark a change in the civil rights movement from advocating a platform of only racial equality to one that incorporated interracial class issues and economic goals.

Rev. Barber and his colleagues have a huge task, made all the more difficult by a long-time lack of concern about the growing poverty in this country. The United States has a severe problem with poverty. In May the United Nations published a report that counted 40 million Americans as living in poverty, and 18.5 million living in extreme poverty. The U.S. Census Bureau provides the same estimates.

As national policies help the rich get richer, they are helping the poor get poorer. The poverty rate is worse now than when MLK was threatening to “close down Washington” until efforts were made to reduce poverty in this the wealthiest country in the world. The poverty rate for all ages in the United States in 2016 was about the same as in 1968; however, for children, the poverty rate is higher now than it was in 1968. Hunger is now a harsh reality for 14 million children nationwide.

The leadership of Rev. Barber and others is much needed if for no other reason than to keep things from getting worse. In addition to denying the facts of the UN Report and the U.S. Census data, the Trump administration is looking to make deep cuts in food stamps.

Last month the U.S. House passed Trump’s farm legislation bill which would increase the work requirements for food stamp recipients while cutting the number of people eligible for food stamps. The main thrust of this House Bill would increase subsidies for large-scale farmers and government-backed crop insurers, the one percent.

If you are wondering how anyone could pass a bill to increase poverty remember that the Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, recalls daydreaming about going to Washington and getting in a position to cut Medicaid, the medical insurance program for poor people. Well, he’s in Washington and leading an assault on the poor.

The new Poor People’s Campaign faces a fight the old Campaign did not have—keeping the vultures from making the condition of poor people worse.