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The Poor People’s Campaign: a Sacred Memory and Call to Action

Fifty-four years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., momentum gathers for Black churches and marginalized communities to historically re-examine the Poor People’s Campaign. A major precursor to Black Liberation Theology, the principles and values of Dr. King’s Poor People Campaign are more relevant now than ever before, particularly for Black churches and marginalized communities. Black churches and Black faith leadership have always been pillars of economic support and social services in Black communities, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated renewed concerns about persistent and rising economic inequality. While everyone has been subject to illness, pre-existing physical conditions, job losses, and economic hardships have taken a disproportionate toll on low-income communities, Black people, and many others who were already marginalized before the pandemic.

During a time of heightened vulnerability, structural racism continues to widen inequalities across socioeconomic fault lines. The New Testament reminds us in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, to be consistent with the truth of God in Jesus who gave himself up for others in love, and to look out not merely for our own self-interests, but also for the interests of others, particularly those experiencing enduring poverty and hardships. Amidst the global movement for Black Lives and persistent and rising economic inequality, Black churches and marginalized communities are at a critical intervention point to re-engage the history of the Poor People’s Campaign.

What is the Poor People’s Campaign?

Started by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign was a social movement to achieve economic justice for those who experienced enduring poverty. If you ask many children today what they know about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they will undoubtedly refer to his “I Have a Dream” speech or the March on Washington. Less notable, however, is King’s leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign and for what the campaign represented. Unfortunately, our society has sanitized Dr. King, actively forgetting how politically disruptive he became as a theologian of action. The later part of King’s activist career (1965-1968) is overshadowed by his public ministry throughout the onset of the Civil Rights Movement.

poor people's campaign button
(Photo: Creative Commons/Courtesy of the NYPL)

Nowadays, we commemorate King’s legacy mainly by celebrating the important political gains from protests and marches that led to amendments and policy changes. We applaud Dr. King’s theologically grounded practice of nonviolence. We paint murals and name boulevards after King in almost every major inner city, urban center, and Black community. While these tributes are much deserved, as iconic as King is, he was nonetheless a prophet of disruption, whose activism warrants so much more than the acclaim and recognition of street names and a national holiday. With 20/20 hindsight, we might learn and apply valuable lessons from King’s concern for how capitalism impacts poor persons and marginalized people in the real world.


“…King entered a revolutionary path in his later career, seeing victories against segregation as partial justice, and shifting focus from love and justice to economic class stability.”


To know King as a champion of social justice is to know and to appreciate the economic ethics of his revolutionary legacy. As primarily a minister, King believed the Gospel was personal as well as social. Early in his public ministry, King’s popularity grew because of his exhortation to Black communities for protest and love in the face of violent systemic racism. A proponent of non-violent resistance to achieve changes in the political structure of U.S. society, King became the most notable Christian activist and philosopher in U.S. history throughout an era of de jure racial segregation. Through his activism, King kept hope alive while holding America accountable for not living up to its creed of freedom and equality for all. However, King entered a revolutionary path in his later career, seeing victories against segregation as partial justice, and shifting focus from love and justice to economic class stability. Along with the SCLC, King created the Poor People’s Campaign, deliberately choosing to target non-race specific issues to empower poor persons, including many Black workers, who had neither economic nor political power.

Racial Justice as Economic Justice

Dr. King’s turn to economic justice was gradual. On July 2, 1964, and then on August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the civil rights act and the voting rights bill, marking the high points of the Civil Rights Movement. However, these peaks of optimism made it difficult to generate massive and widespread participation in the Civil Rights Movement’s practice of nonviolence against racial exclusion given that now there were few obvious targets. Unlike King’s Southern context, systemic racism in the North had not been a matter of de jure segregation , but de facto segregation , or racial separation due to issues of social infrastructure rooted in anti-blackness: housing discrimination, lack of or no access to resources, police brutality, and low wages for workers.

As King began a trans-sectional Civil Rights Movement across both the North and the South, the U.S. had also been at war with Vietnam. When King started to organize in the North, he connected the war on poverty with the war on Vietnam, condemning the war on Vietnam as a political act of U.S. imperialism. King viewed colonialism and imperialism as two sides of the same capitalist coin: the war on Vietnam was the imperialist counterpart of the internal colonialism ravaging Black and poverty-stricken communities in the U.S. At this point in King’s career, he expanded the message of civil rights to include foreign affairs. Ultimately, King viewed the interrelatedness between war abroad and injustice at home as a human rights issue.

For these reasons, King increasingly endorsed the struggle against poverty as central to racial and social justice both domestically and abroad toward the end of his career. The Poor People’s Campaign wanted to end poverty and unemployment. It was motivated by the idea that all people should have what they need to live. Its “economic bill of rights” sought to address poverty through demands for guaranteed annual income and housing advocacy. From February to March of 1968, King aided with the Memphis sanitation strike as part of a larger protest directed toward Washington, D.C. On April 3, King traveled to Memphis, Tenn., to be in solidarity with the sanitation workers and gave his famous last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In this speech, King called for the boycott of capitalist heavyweights like Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread, and he encouraged Black people to invest in Black banks and insurances.

The genius of King’s Poor People’s Campaign was that it made the people realize that they could exercise a choice to hold owners of major corporations accountable. It sought to bridge the gulf between the “haves and the have-nots.” King galvanized people to challenge the capitalist power structure and to decide how they wanted to determine their own destinies on a global scale. On April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated on the infamous balcony of the Black owned Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Before he died, King and the Poor People’s Campaign offered practical actions to begin a process of building a greater and a more just economic base.

What Happened to the Poor People’s Campaign?

The assassination of Dr. King was a huge blow to the longevity and public support of the Poor People’s Campaign. Also, the campaign likely was not the most popular highlight of King’s career, because even as its leader, the media pit King and his strategy of nonviolent, multiracial civil rights organizing in tension with what would eventually grow into the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 70s. Yet, although proponents of the Poor People’s Campaign did not establish a baseline livable wage for all workers, and even though Black communities did not collectively boycott major corporations to change economic policy, the campaign’s critique of capitalism altered and emboldened the course of the Black freedom struggle.

After his assassination, younger generations picked up where King and his constituents left off, but with a Black socialist twist. Black communities became disenchanted and increasingly skeptical of the potential of nonviolent resistance to affect the white power structure in the U.S. A new guard surfaced, namely the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, symbolizing a departure from the church-led civil rights frame and nonviolent tactics of King’s Civil Rights Movement. But the Panthers carried forward the struggle not just with a different political framework than before, but with an entirely new economic philosophy, namely an expression of revolutionary nationalism.

King did not consider himself a socialist: he did not publicly call for the abolition of private property in land, technology, resources, or finance. The Panthers, and the Black Power Movement they represented, however, were rooted in socialist ideas, out of which the Panthers and groups like them birthed historic, community programs and services that changed our world today. During the Black Power movement, revolutionary groups like The Black Panthers provided for poor and Black communities. They filled the gaps between the political need for policy change and the immediate needs of the people. The ethos of the Panthers was to seek freedom and the power to determine their own communities’ destinies, providing services like childcare, free breakfast programs, and liberation schools to meet people’s real day-to-day challenges. These services have never gained the mainstream visibility they deserve largely because of anti-socialist leanings on the part of the U.S. government. But their radical economic analysis pointed to the racist, structural injustices and policies to blame while proposing extremely progressive alternative economic institutions and social service modalities.

Like King, the original Black Panther Party is a sacred memory. But today, with this history in mind, the conversation for Black churches and faith leaders is whether we can afford to relegate the Black freedom struggle’s legacy of economic justice to a past moment, or if we can come together now to organize democratic energies of communities on behalf of ways to build better economic futures.

Where Are We Now?

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. (Photo: Knightopia, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, the Poor People’s Campaign has re-emerged from its revolutionary past. Today, a new voice of faith-leadership has recalled the foundation of the original Poor People’s Campaign. Led by the Rev. William Barber, the International Union, and the Agricultural Implement Workers of America, a new Poor People’s Campaign emerged in 2018, aiming to address the issues that King spoke against in the original movement. This faith-led Poor People’s Campaign staged a series of dramatic protests in Washington throughout 2021. It has advocated for policies intended to repair the social infrastructure of the U.S. Most recently, the campaign expressed support for the passage of bills such as the Build Back Better Act, a social policy bill that includes safety provisions such as universal childcare and climate justice. But, given the historic leadership and activism of King and the SCLC, and of the revolutionary services of the Black Panther Party throughout the Black Power Movement, where is the public, unified voice from Black churches on issues of political economics? In what ways can Black churches reclaim the prophetic energy of the Poor People’s Campaign and constructively honor the Black freedom struggle’s concern for the political economy?

We cannot change the past, but we can act in the here and now. Much of our political energy has rightly been spent fighting voter suppression, but we also need to confront a racist system that says everyone cannot be rich in a capitalist society. Capitalism requires a poor underclass for a wealthy, ruling class to exist. In Dr. King’s time, Black and poor people created wealth for White people.


“For the Christian faith to be salvific enough to enhance the lives of those experiencing enduring poverty, Black churches must collectively act to alleviate systemic poverty.”


Today, COVID-19 showed us what it means “to be poor.” Across industries, those least able to weather a shut down or period of unemployment are lower-wage, lower-income households, which also tend to disproportionately be Black and marginalized people. Moreover, most frontline workers still going to their jobs in many industries are women and marginalized people. Despite the recognition that some Black and marginalized people may receive for being “essential workers,” Black churches and marginalized communities must still put pressure on the hidden powerbroker of capitalism that ignores economic injustice and considers low-wage and racially segregated workers expendable or replaceable.

We can learn from the history of the Poor People’s Campaign and from its Black Power successor that at its most fundamental level, economic justice requires collective action in favor of an alternative to applied capitalist ideals.

For the Christian faith to be salvific enough to enhance the lives of those experiencing enduring poverty, Black churches must collectively act to alleviate systemic poverty. King did not want to speak out against President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to avoid potential backlash from the U.S. government for the Civil Rights Movement. However, he and those who followed, still chose the hard road of organizing for change. As a result, we now know that economic justice exists on a continuum. A historical consideration of the Poor People’s Campaign teaches us that economic justice involves choices that range between 1) collective spending and divesting dollars as a vote for the kind of world in which we want to live, and 2) the creation of an alternative, anti-capitalist economy. Economic justice requires both organizing politically to change policy as well as activism in service of power to meet the immediate needs of those experiencing enduring poverty. We see individual churches and leaders acting benevolently, and regional consortiums serving disadvantaged peoples in their communities: however, it remains to be seen that Black churches mobilize a united front against structural economic inequalities.

Conclusion

We can learn from the past to regenerate revolutionary pathways forward. A national holiday and street names are worthy reminders of Dr. King’s activism, but honoring King also means to fight for a baseline livable wage for everyone, to demand equitable labor practices, and to advocate for more bargaining power and voice for all workers. Moreover, compared to the era of the civil rights and Black Power movements when the national poverty rate was around 11 percent, today, 13.4 percent of the U.S. population lives below the poverty line, according to the latest data (2021) from the U.S. Census Bureau. Social problems like housing justice and gentrification, preventative access to quality resources like health care, inescapable poverty, the plight of the unhoused, education, worker’s rights and power, women’s rights, the impact of COVID-19 on frontline and essential workers, and much more point to the need for Black churches and faith leadership to continue to collectively offer concrete ways to pick up the mantle of economic justice.

King’s legacy should live on through us because we all are direct beneficiaries of the Black freedom struggle. And if we are the legacy of the Black freedom struggle, then how could our leaders and their ideas be dead if we are still here? By thinking both locally and globally, the goal is to ensure we do not participate in the production or perpetuation of poverty but instead the economic empowerment of not just Black people but all people. King’s Poor People’s Campaign reminds us there is prophetic power in collectively disrupting society and how it functions to achieve positive social change. God is ever-present everywhere, and the time is always now to claim our collective identities as members of the beloved community King envisioned, allowing God to make Godself more present in society through our love of justice.


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Dr. Joshua Sherman Bartholomew
Dr. Joshua Sherman Bartholomewhttps://www.spst.edu/dr-joshua-bartholomew/
Dr. Joshua Sherman Bartholomew is the Assistant Professor of Ethics, Church and Society at Saint Paul School of Theology. His academic research and forthcoming book, "Black Theology and The Black Panthers," deals with the relationship between economic justice and racial equality within the U.S. and its transnational range of influence.

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