In December 2017, 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. called for a multiracial, nonviolent army of the poor, a new generation of activists resurrected the civil rights leader’s boldest crusade: the Poor People’s Campaign.
In its first year, the Poor People’s Campaign, led by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, has made strides in its goal of bringing poverty and economic inequality to the forefront of national discourse. The movement has already established 40 state chapters led by grassroots organizers entrenched in the fight for economic justice.
Taking on broad issues such as inequality, systemic racism, ecological devastation, the war economy and what organizers call the country’s “distorted moral narrative” hasn’t been without challenges. But people are hungry for a movement that addresses these “interlocking” issues, Barber says, and the Poor People’s Campaign is laying the foundation to hopefully change policies and give a voice to America’s poor.
A year of protests and organizing
The Poor People’s Campaign kicked off the movement last May with 40 days of nonviolent direct action in more than 40 states across the country and in Washington. Each week, state organizers held protests, rallies and demonstrations centered on a specific theme, ranging from the links between systemic racism and poverty to the proliferation of gun violence.
Organizers in Michigan marched through downtown Detroit to the city’s water and sewage department to protest water shutoffs and demand clean, affordable water.
Organizers in Washington state recreated a homeless encampment on the lawn of the state Capitol to bring attention to the state’s homelessness crisis, one of the worst in the nation.
It was a wave of simultaneous action occurring all over the country, culminating in a massive rally in the nation’s capital June 23.
Since those 40 days of action, the campaign has kept up that momentum on a local level. Members of the movement showed up at the opening sessions of state legislatures earlier this month to grab the attention of lawmakers. Activists in Washington state sued the city of Aberdeen to remove restrictions on visitors to a local homeless encampment – and won.
The work of the Poor People’s Campaign isn’t all protests and demonstrations. They also held hearings and workshops, and registered people to vote ahead of the midterm elections.
Barber says the Poor People’s Campaign spent a lot of time this year teaching people the real statistics on poverty. The campaign commissioned a report from the Institute for Policy Studies that examines how policies on issues such as voting rights, housing segregation and welfare reform have changed since 1968.
“We spent a lot of time making sure we launched this campaign with an appropriate understanding of that poverty is not the fault of the poor,” Barber says. “That it is no longer a question of whether or not we can deal with poverty and provide everybody health care and provide living wages.”
Building from the ground up
The strength of the Poor People’s Campaign lies in its strategy of building diverse coalitions from the ground up. By establishing a strong presence in states, they’re building a massive network of organizers, clergy, lawyers and, most importantly, poor people, across the nation.
“Having a national movement doesn’t mean you have a PO Box in D.C.,” Barber says. “We understand movements are built from Montgomery up, not from Washington, D.C., down.”
Before launching the campaign, Barber and Theoharis spent time touring the country and visiting communities affected by poverty, from California to the Deep South. By connecting issues such as the toxic effects of coal ash in rural areas to the denial of Medicaid expansion in red states, leaders say they’re hoping to organize a currently disconnected group of people that could be a powerful mobilizing force.
“That’s the power of the movement,” Barber says. “We have white women from the coal mines of West Virginia standing together with black women from Alabama.”
It’s a strategy that’s worked for Barber and others in the past. His Moral Mondays movement in 2013 saw a diverse group of North Carolinians protesting voter suppression laws week after week at the state legislature. The sustained campaign helped bring about the defeat of incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
Rev. Alaina Cobb is one of the leaders of Tennessee’s Poor People’s Campaign. She got involved with the campaign through Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center, an interfaith church in Chattanooga where she is the pastor.
As a transgender woman, Cobb is no stranger to issues of poverty. Transgender people are more likely than cisgender people to live in poverty, and the numbers are even starker for trans people of color. She’s struggled and she’s seen her friends struggle, too. Knowing that others across the country were also organizing to make the US a more just place was powerful for her.
“I needed a way to stand up and say, ‘Not anymore. This is not OK. What we’re doing to our people is not OK,’” Cobb says. “The Poor People’s Campaign has given us a coordinated way of doing that.”
The resistance they’ve faced
For all the strides the Poor People’s Campaign has made, its goals are ambitious in a political climate where partisan divides are at record highs.
Though organizers are adamant that the movement is not about the left vs. right, it’s primarily progressives that embrace the campaign’s demands. With a divided Congress and a Republican President, the odds of achieving federal legislative success are slim.
Barber and Theoharis say they are realistic. They acknowledge there isn’t a “moral will” to enact legislation guaranteeing universal health care, living wages and other demands they’ve proposed.
Some lawmakers are at least listening.
On June 12, 2018, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Elijah Cummings convened a hearing on Capitol Hill at which lawmakers heard the stories of people fighting for change in their communities, and their proposed solutions.
Barber said at the hearing that the Poor People’s Campaign sent a letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell and Rep. Paul Ryan asking for a hearing in Congress, but didn’t receive a response.
Gordon Mantler, a historian and writing professor at George Washington University, says partisan politics and chaos in Washington could limit what the campaign can achieve, but the key is starting local – a strategy he says the leaders are well aware of.
“I’m still optimistic that change can happen but it’s going to be over the long run,” Manter says. “The focus needs to be on smaller incremental things at local levels, whether it’s making sure that Michigan deals with water treatment, or that more and more states embrace Medicaid expansion.”
But even at the state and local levels, organizers have been met with resistance – or indifference.
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration blocked most members of the state’s Poor People’s Campaign from entering the state Capitol last June, prompting Barber to fly out there for a rally.
Campaign organizers in Tennessee invited state legislators to listen to the stories of poor people in a hearing this month, but none showed up. When they voiced their demands at the state Capitol the next day, they were largely ignored.
“I think right now we’re still just annoying to them,” say Rev. Cobb.
In Washington state, the Rev. Bianca Davis-Lovelace said Olympia city officials tried to compromise with the campaign to end the protests, but the campaign didn’t feel as though its demands were being seriously addressed.
“We were getting their attention because they wanted us to stop, but I’m not sure if it was really a situation where they were listening to us,” she said.
What’s ahead for the campaign
The work of the Poor People’s Campaign has only just begun. In June, leaders are planning another hearing in Congress on the issues at the center of its platform.
Because organizers are tired of being asked where the money for things like universal health care, an expanded social safety net and a green jobs program will come from, the campaign is planning to release a budget developed by economists, theologians and researchers on how exactly the US can fund their demands.
Things are only going to ramp up as the presidential election cycle gets underway. The leaders want to see poverty addressed in presidential debates, and they want more politicians to take the time to listen to the people it affects.
The campaign is also planning a mass gathering of poor people in June 2020 ahead of the party conventions.
“We’ll convene again and continue to show that we’re here, we’re poor, we’re clergy, and we’re not going home until we’re able to make things better for everyone,” Theoharis says.
There’s still a lot of work to do, says Theoharis, but the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign believe they’re on the right track. And as the movement continues to grow, others will be forced to pay attention.
“It’s not easy, but it’s also deeply inspiring to see how people are waking up every day and building this campaign from little tiny communities to big cities all across this country.”