Fifty Years Ago Today, MLK Launched the Poor People’s Campaign

Poor People's Campaign MLK

Fifty years ago today, Rev. Martin Luther King announced plans for a “Poor People’s Campaign” that would bring together impoverished Americans of all backgrounds to demand action from Washington. Tragically, King was assassinated a year later just as the campaign was getting started, but today his vision is being revived. Faith leaders Rev. William J. Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis have joined with tens of thousands of people from across the country to launch their modern version of the Poor People’s Campaign. They describe their movement as “a Moral Revival to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.”

Priests in Handcuffs

The modern campaign, like Dr. King’s original plan, uses non-violent direct action as its primary strategy and relies on the leadership of clergy to organize on-the-ground actions. Truly, there is nothing more striking than faith leaders in full ceremonial garb being shuffled away in handcuffs. The power of such an action was visible earlier this year when Rev. Barber and other faith leaders from around the DC area protested the GOP’s health care bill outside Mitch McConnell’s office.

The presence of clergy also helps to underscore that the campaign is about morality, and will not be undone by partisanship. One of the principles of the movement is: “This is not about left and right, Democrat or Republican but about right and wrong.”

At a moment when divisiveness is at an all-time high in America, this movement seems especially needed.

Calling Out Unjust Government

Rev. Barber has been preaching about economic injustice for many years through an initiative called ‘Moral Mondays’ that grew up organically in 2012 in opposition to the actions of the conservative government of North Carolina. Hearing about Republican efforts to block the expansion of Medicaid and cut unemployment spending, Barber thought, “Wait a minute, this has just gone too far.” He began coordinating weekly protests with fellow clergy and activists at the state capitol in Raleigh. The Moral Mondays movement grew quickly and expanded to other states as more and more people were willing to risk arrest to make a point about injustice in government.

This modern revival of the Poor People’s Campaign is an ambitious expansion of Barber’s Moral Monday framework, but the group’s founders are building on a historical precedent.

A Shantytown on the National Mall

When Dr. King shared his vision fifty years ago, it included caravans of poor people descending on Washington and building a shantytown on the National Mall. Many thousands would then join them for a series of marches to make their plight visible, while national boycotts of industries would increase pressure on businesses to get on board. The group’s demands were the allocation of money in the federal budget to fight poverty, a commitment to wiping out unemployment, and yearly funds set aside for building housing for the homeless.

A shantytown of 3,000 people on the National Mall did happen in 1968, as did a Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom of over 50,000. But the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign were never met, and energy petered out in the 1970s.

Poverty has continued to ravage America in the decades since, hurting non-white communities above all. For this reason, the modern Poor People’s Campaign clearly articulates the racial nature of inequality. stating on the website, “Poverty and economic equality cannot be understood apart from a society built on white supremacy.”

In both its iterations the Poor People’s Campaign is fundamentally a call for moral reckoning in the United States. As the richest country in the history of the world, the campaign pushes people to ask more from themselves and their leadership.

Together In the Fight

Imagine if someday the majority of Americans took to heart these words spoken by Dr. King in 1966: “I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out…This is the way I’m going.”

What a difference we could make.

Consider getting involved in the national Poor People’s Campaign: https://poorpeoplescampaign.org