BY NIJMIE DZURINKO AND BEN FIORILLO
In December 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. announced the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign, a new movement that would unite poor people across racial lines and call for a redistribution of political and economic power in the United States. He said, “There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” During this time, Dr. King made three key pivots from his previous work: from a fight against racism to a fight against the inseparably linked issues of racism, poverty and militarism; from civil rights to human rights; and from reform to revolution.
Just a few months after the launch of the campaign, Dr. King was assassinated (many would argue that he was assassinated because of the revolutionary nature of the Poor People’s Campaign). The campaign went forward, with leadership from Ralph Abernathy, the National Welfare Rights Organization and others in King’s inner circle. In the spring of 1968, they erected a “Resurrection City” with thousands of poor people from around the country camped on the National Mall for 42 days demanding jobs, income, and housing as human rights. Some victories were achieved, but because of divisions among leadership, as well as infiltration and disruption by the FBI, the original Poor People’s Campaign ultimately fell apart and its revolutionary goals were never realized.
Over the past 15 years, organizers across the country have been laying the groundwork to reignite the Poor People’s Campaign. In 2004, the Kairos Center (formerly the Poverty Initiative) was founded, building on the experiences of the National Union of the Homeless in the 1980s and 1990s and other efforts of the poor organizing the poor. It launched the Poverty Scholars Network – a network of leaders and organizations established across the country for relationship building, and studying history, political economy and liberation theology.
Simultaneous to the development of the Poverty Scholars Network, Rev. William Barber II and others were building the Moral Mondays movement for over 10 years in North Carolina, leading to the formation of the North Carolina-based organization Repairers of the Breach. Out of a partnership between the Kairos Center and Repairers of the Breach emerged a call for organizations across the country to formally commit to a new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC:NCMR). The new campaign launched last year, 50 years after the original campaign. The new campaign builds off of Dr. King’s vision and addresses five interconnected evils: systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the distorted moral narrative.
There are many more poor people in the United States today than there were in 1968. According to the Supplemental Poverty Measure, 43.5% of the U.S. population — or 140 million people — were poor or low- income in 2016. The current direction of the economy – automation, privatization of public goods, and attacks on social programs – promises to continue to amass wealth for the ruling class and send more and more people into poverty.
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival aims to build a “moral fusion movement” that can unite poor people across racial lines, across geography, and across the different problems facing different sections of the working class. Every major social problem – healthcare, housing, immigration, mass incarceration, and others – is an attack on the poor. A “new and unsettling force” of 140 million poor people, united, and independent from either political party, is the social force that has the power to transform all of these interconnected problems.
The PPC:NCMR is organized into state-level chapters in 42 states. Sixty organizations, and faith communities have joined the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign, including the following Pittsburgh-area organizations: Put People First! PA, the Coalition to Abolish Death by Incarceration (CADBI), the Thomas Merton Center, A Better Path Coalition, Casa San Jose, and Just Harvest.
The Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign has developed a list of demands to serve as a blueprint for policy changes to tackle the issues facing poor people in Pennsylvania. The PPC:NCMR does not endorse political candidates. Instead, we are building people power to push the entire political system to enact the change we need. To read the Poor People’s Moral Agenda for Pennsylvania, go to medium.com/@pappcblog. For the PPC:NCMR national policy platform go to ips-dc.org/report-moral-budget-2/.
On June 20, 2020, the Poor People’s Campaign: National Call for Moral Revival will hold a mass march and assembly in Washington D.C., to ensure that the problems of poverty, racism, militarism, and environmental devastation are front and center in the presidential election. You can sign up with the national campaign at PoorPeoplesCampaign. org to get updates on this major mobilization.
To get involved locally, join one of the Pittsburgh-based organizations listed above and follow us on facebook. com/PennsylvaniaPPC/.
“Forward Together, Not One Step Back”
Nijmie Dzurinko is the co-chair of the Pennsylvania Poor People’s Campaign and Ben Fiorillo is an organizer with Put People First! PA
Originally published VOL 49 No. 7, September 2019