Fifty years ago this week, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference announced the Poor People's Campaign. Calling for a cross-racial coalition of Americans living in poverty to demand better living conditions, King described the need for the campaign in terms that feel particularly timely in the Trump era. "All of us can feel the presence of a kind of social insanity which could lead us to national ruin," King declared.
Half a century later, as Republican leaders ram through a ruinous tax bill that will exacerbate economic inequality, a coalition of faith and social justice organizations is bringing King's vision into the 21st century. Led by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is planning 40 days of coordinated action in the spring of 2018 at statehouses across the country. Like its predecessor, the modern Poor People's Campaign is focused on what King described as the "triple evils" of racism, poverty and militarism — with the addition of ecological devastation, a global crisis that disproportionately affects people living in poverty.
A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies details why it's so critical at this moment to not merely commemorate the anniversary of the Poor People's Campaign, but also to re-engage with King's crusade to organize and build the power of people who are too often marginalized in our society.
Beyond the emergence of increasingly emboldened white nationalists, who have existed on the fringes of society for years, the scourge of systemic racism continues to affect large segments of the population. As the IPS notes, "More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, people of color still face a broad range of attacks on their voting rights, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting, felony disenfranchisement, and a variety of laws designed to make it harder to vote." Mass incarceration and the failed war on drugs have wreaked havoc on communities across the country. The state and federal prison population has skyrocketed from less than 200,000 in 1968 to nearly 1.5 million in 2015, while the proportion of non-white inmates has jumped from less than half to more than two-thirds.
In the wealthiest country in the world, poverty is still taking a devastating toll on millions of people of all races. Today, there are 95 million poor or low-income Americans. Fifty-eight million work for less than $15 an hour, meaning they are denied a living wage. More than 30 million children currently live at or below twice the federal poverty line, according to IPS, which is "considered the minimum for meeting basic family needs." Income inequality is growing, and the toxic combination of tax breaks for the rich and devastating cuts to the social safety net threatens to make the problem much worse.
The challenges facing the poor are exacerbated by America's bipartisan addiction to militarism. In his famous 1967 speech at Riverside Church — where Barber delivered a sermon in April at a celebration of the King address's 50th anniversary — King argued that the United States would "never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube." Fifty year later, King's words still ring true. In 2016, IPS reports that "military spending was almost four times the investment in people's lives at home — $630 billion for the military versus a paltry $183 billion for education, jobs, housing and other basic human needs."
And while the United States turns a blind eye to the rising threat of catastrophic climate change, environmental pollution and ecological devastation are already causing real suffering among low-income people and communities of color in particular. The most salient example, of course, is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the callous decision to switch to a cheaper water source left some residents with a severely contaminated water supply that met the EPA definition of "toxic waste." Across the country, up to 4 million people could be exposed to unsafe drinking water, according to a December 2016 USA Today investigation.
In the face of a hostile government and a President Donald Trump-obsessed media, the Poor People's Campaign will be fighting an uphill battle. In 26 presidential debates last year, the issues at the heart of the campaign were overwhelmingly overlooked — there were no questions about poverty in nine Democratic primary debates — so putting the plight of the working poor on the national agenda will not be easy.
Yet Barber, who launched the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina in 2013 that grew into a national movement, may be the man for the moment. He has been compared with King for his commitment to advancing a "fusion politics," which aims to unite people of all races and creeds by framing the fight for progress in moral terms rather than ideological ones. "The language of left versus right and liberal versus conservative is too puny to challenge the extremism we're facing now," Barber wrote earlier this year.
While the Poor People's Campaign aspires to change the policy conversation, it is ultimately about changing how society defines true morality in these difficult times. "This is about the moral center," Barber has declared. "This is about our humanity."
Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly online column for The Washington Post.