As the Poor People’s Campaign launches a new initiative, its charismatic leader is working with the generation of civil rights leaders who stood by the Rev. Martin Luther King’s side and continued his efforts to stamp out poverty and racism after his assassination.
“The movement for love and justice and truth is always a continuation. It’s never completed,” said the Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. “And you never approach any movement for justice as though you were the first one.”
Leaders who have battled injustice since the 1960s — the Rev. Jesse Jackson, children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman, and attorney Al McSurely — say the work of the Poor People’s Campaign is urgently needed as income and wealth inequality grows.
“Fewer and fewer have more and more, subsidized by the government,” Jackson said in an interview at his office in Chicago. “And more and more have less and less.”
From now through October, the campaign will be working to register people for the movement and to vote, piloted by volunteers. Barber said he expects more than 5,000 volunteers to participate in 26 states this weekend.
Volunteers will go beyond merely registering people to vote by emphasizing the connection between joining the movement and casting a ballot and by educating people about the Poor People’s Campaign issues, Barber said.
The registration drive is the second phase of action this year. The first, 40 days of activism, ended in June with a rally attended by thousands in Washington, D.C. It was followed by appearances earlier this month by former Vice President Al Gore in North Carolina. Gore spoke at a service at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, where Barber is the minister, and at a rally the next day in Greensboro.
King had announced the Poor People’s Campaign in December 1967 and planned to hold a massive demonstration on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. But four months later, he was killed by an assassin’s bullet. The demonstration that King had planned still took place. Edelman moved to Washington, D.C., to lead the campaign. Protesters set up camp, with Jackson serving as “mayor” of what they called Resurrection City. McSurely brought in busloads of Appalachian residents.
Today, Jackson is president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. Edelman is founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. And McSurely, whose home was firebombed in 1968, is an attorney in Carthage, North Carolina, and serves as adviser to the campaign. He paid for law school with funds from a settlement he received after the federal government wrongly tried him for contempt of Congress.
Barber said he appreciates his predecessors’ wisdom and advice, especially considering that the assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy could have killed their spark.
“People have to be reminded that the civil rights movement, the Poor People’s Campaign, they didn’t just end,” said Barber, who leads the new campaign with the Rev. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center. “They were assassinated; they were murdered; they were killed. Those still here experienced tremendous pain and hurt watching certain elements of a nation so filled with hate and racism that they would rather kill prophets of justice and love rather than listen to them.”
The work is hard and exhausting, McSurely said. But King’s murder did not kill his vision. “That’s what people don’t understand. You know, it’s literally like being a soldier, a nonviolent soldier in the Army. And we’ve got to fight until we die.”
‘A matter of our conscience’
The campaign continued after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, who was emphasizing poverty and hunger. Black-and-white television footage shows Edelman and Kennedy visiting some of the poorest families in Mississippi. That footage nationalized the movement to help the hungry because the press followed Kennedy, Edelman said.
The tragedy of poverty in the U.S. is that the country has the money to feed the hungry, clothe the poor and provide health insurance for the sick, Jackson said. It is disheartening to see the country step backward on caring for the poor, Jackson said.
“The Poor People’s Campaign is important to me because it is a matter of our conscience. It is America at its best,” said Jackson, who was arrested with Barber in May when they demonstrated in the U.S. Capitol as they demanded restoration of the Voting Rights Act and the end of racial gerrymandering.
Edelman said the campaign, despite past successes that include expansion of food programs for the hungry, must carry on.
“I thought we would’ve ended it by now,” Edelman said. “We’ve still got 13.2 million poor. We’ve made progress. We keep trying to inch forward. We have to keep at it.”
King’s death was devastating to those who believed in his social justice mission. But Edelman said it was never a question of abandoning the campaign. “It was Martin’s last dream.”