As the 50th anniversary of MLK Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign approaches, organizers want to take up King’s mantle to “unite the bottom of this country, to bring about real change, to shift the narrative that is demonizing people for the problems they’re facing and to build power from the bottom up,” says campaign co-chair Dr. Liz Theoharis
SHARMINI PERIES: It’s the Real News Network I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. In 1968, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. along with other civil rights leaders launched a Poor People’s Campaign. It was an effort to end poverty, racism and militarism in America.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: The time has come for America to hear the truth about this tragic war. I have chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam today because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.
We must also realize that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.
We are tired of our children having to attend overcrowded, inferior schools. And we are tired of our men not being able to be men because they can’t find work.
1,300 sanitation workers are on strike and Memphis is not being fair to them. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.
SHARMINI PERIES: Last week, a revival of this campaign was launched. Let’s have a look.
SPEAKER: You know, this feels like the old mass meetings. We’re here in all of our diversity. We’re here in the human family.
LIZ THEOHARIS: There is a fire raging now, for the poor of this society. They are living in tragic conditions because of the terrible economic injustices that keep them locked in.
SPEAKER: We have to deal with our war economy, and systemic racism, and systemic poverty and ecological devastation. And finally, we have to deal with the moral narrative.
SHARMINI PERIES: On to talk about the campaign with me is Dr. Reverend Liz Theoharis. She is Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She is Co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice. She also teaches at Union Theological Seminary. Liz, very good to have you with us.
LIZ THEOHARIS: It’s really good to be here. Thanks for having me.
SHARMINI PERIES: Liz, you’ve launched an incredible campaign with a coalition of people coming together, creating a movement. Describe the movement and the moment we are in that provided the conditions and the need to relaunch Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
LIZ THEOHARIS: We’re living in a difficult and dangerous time. There are 44% of Americans are living at or below poverty. The racism is rampant. Militarization of our communities is raging. And we’re posed with a moral crisis, where people are being denied healthcare and food and education. So, grassroots communities, for many years, have been saying, we need to come together. We need to come together across race, across geography, across the issues and build something that is as strong and sustainable, and can change the direction that our society is going in.
Years ago, actually, grassroots leaders said, we take inspiration from the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King and Cesar Chavez and Myles Horton and other leaders, the welfare rights movement, were talking about, and planning and carried out, back in ’67, ’68. We said, as we approach the 50th anniversary of this historic campaign. You can’t commemorate something that has not yet been fully realized. And that we don’t need just a moment or another action or activity, but we need to launch a season of organizing, of real campaign to unite the bottom of this country. To be able to bring about real change, to shift the narrative that is demonizing people for the problems that they’re facing and build power from the bottom up. To nationalize state-based movements.
What we did, last week, with the launching of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival was bring together many forces that have been organizing in their local communities for a while and bring them onto a national stage to say that in the Spring of 2018, as we reach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, as we reach the 50th anniversary of the launch of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, that what we need today, in these times, is a new Poor People’s Campaign, and a national call for moral revival. That is on. That is happening and people across the country, in the thousands, are getting involved and signed up to be a part of something really big.
SHARMINI PERIES: Liz, you said a “season of actions.” What does that look like to you, and what do you expect?
LIZ THEOHARIS: We are talking about and calling for 40 days of moral direct action, 40 days of organizing, public education, advocacy work and non-violent civil disobedience in state capitals across the United States and in Washington, D.C. What this 40 days, that will start on Mother’s Day, May 13th of 2018, and go until June 21st, the summer solstice, is six weeks of grass roots base building, organizing and action across the country.
The purpose of that is because we think we need more than a tweet to break through this moment. We think we need more than a mobilization or an action. More than just one policy or program proposed. But we need people to come together, from the ground up,and to stay together, to be able to both carry out a season of organizing and have that be the beginning of, not the culmination of, but the beginning of launching fusion movements, moral movements, grassroots movements across this country, who can really bring an end to poverty and systemic racism, militarization, the war economy and the kind of ecological devastation that are plaguing are nation.
SHARMINI PERIES: Liz, last week when you launched this campaign, it was done with a lot of data. I mean, everyone who spoke, spoke about the tax bill and what it was going to do to poor folk. So, tell me about how you’re backing this campaign, in terms of the data and the research that you need, in order to be effective and talk very tangibly about the conditions of the poor.
LIZ THEOHARIS: We have a philosophy in our movement, which is that you can’t be loud and wrong. That whatever activities that we’re doing, to get attention to what’s going on in the world, have to be based on the facts, figures and faces of what’s really taking place. We all know some of the statistics but we have been working with the Institute for Policy Studies and a team of researchers, academics, policy makers, impacted folks, organizations of grassroots leaders, to conduct the Souls of Poor Folk Audit.
SHARMINI PERIES: Liz, give us a sense of the conditions that poor people are facing, particularly compared to 1968.
LIZ THEOHARIS: Yeah. What we’ve found in and put out in this preliminary report is that 60% more people, more Americans, are living in poverty than in 1968. That, today, 43.5% of people in the United States, nearly one in two, are poor or low income. That 52 years after the Voting Right Act, that we actually have fewer voting rights than we did 52 years ago, that there are 4 million families that are facing undrinkable, poisoned water, just every day in the United States. That actually, there are more deaths because of pollution than any other causes. That 250,000 people every year, basically die because of poverty, low education rates, the kinds of social ills that are plaguing our nation. And that’s more than heart attacks and car accidents and all of the other more common thoughts of why people are dying.
The conditions are grave. There are more homeless children today than there were during the Great Depression. Over the past 50 years, things have not steadily gotten better. Instead, homelessness is become a new phenomenon. The militarization of our border and the deportation of immigrants is insane, what’s going on. The conditions are very grave.
SHARMINI PERIES: And this is a two-prong, multi-prong, if I may say, in terms of the campaign. Now, you’re doing consciousness raising and educating people as you go on this campaign. But at the same time, you’re targeting people who can be effective agents of change on behalf of the people that are poor. So, you’ll be targeting, probably municipal governments, state governments and of course, Washington itself. Who are you hoping to speak to, that can affect some change as well, besides the movement and the rallies you’re organizing?
LIZ THEOHARIS: The 40 days of moral direct action will be taking place in state capitals across the country and in Washington, D.C. The kind of two-fold purpose or goals of this stage of this campaign, these 40 days, is to shift the moral narrative. So, to start actually raising the kinds of issues that are taking place, and the kind of false narratives that are there, that blame people for their problems, blame poor people for their poverty and demonize folks for what they’re going through.
But then also, to build power from the ground up. The idea is that this is an organizing campaign. This is a movement building campaign and that we will go to state houses across the country, people will, where a lot of laws and legislation are being passed that adversely affect people of color, poor people, the earth that we live in and the priorities of this nation. And that we are targeting those state houses and Washington D.C., and in Washington, D.C. we’re actually focusing on Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and the roles that they play in terms of the senate and the house, because of, again, so many of the problems that are affecting people are happening those places.
The purpose of the campaign is to shift the narrative and to build power, to be able to actually put together some real solutions, and a coalition or a fusion movement of people who will stay together for the long haul, to not just win one policy change but will keep the pressure up to change the whole direction and the priorities of the policies. We partly came up with this 40 days, looking at the 2016 presidential election. We would do this no matter who had won. We would have done this years ago, just because how things are going. But in that 2016 presidential election, when we looked at the 26 debates that happened in that election and those were in the primaries and in the general election, not one of those 26 debates took on the issue of poverty for any real time, took on living wages, took on healthcare in terms of universal healthcare, single payer healthcare, took on voting rights and the suppression of voting rights.
The issues that are affecting the majority of people in this country were not the issues that were talked about by our candidates and elected officials and we need to change that. We see this campaign as fighting for the heart and soul of our nation, for the heart and soul of our democracy, for the heart and soul of the people who make up this nation, so those hearts can continue to beat, so that people can continue to make a living and try to change things for the better, for themselves and their communities.
SHARMINI PERIES: Right. And finally, Liz, yesterday USDA signaled that they would relax on the rules of administering the food stamps in the country and they would perhaps devolve and provide greater flexibility for states to administer it as they wish, and this really allows them to put greater controls on food stamps. For example, I think in Wisconsin, they’re talking about having drug testing before you get your food stamps. I mean, these are some of the conditions that people are facing and here we’re talking about a very minimal amount of money necessary to provide people with food. How do you plan to attack something like that?
LIZ THEOHARIS: This recent announcement, everything and the tax bill, all of the things that are coming out on our news all the time, just continue to signal that we need this Poor People’s Campaign. We need a national call for a moral revival and we need to be building from the states up because so many of these policies that are coming are punishing poor people, punishing marginalized people, blaming folks for the problems that they’re facing. And right now, that happens and we’re not organized. We’re not mobilized. We’re not able to be raising the question of, how can people be starving? I mean, because people are. And how can people being denied food? Because they are, in the richest in nation in the world, when we throw away more food than it takes to feed everybody. But currently, we have people that are not able to feed and clothe and shelter their families.
So this campaign, in the moral agenda that we use to organize those 40 days and going forward, will take on the issues that are affecting people from food stamps to education, from healthcare to living wage jobs, to guaranteed income, to environment protections and voting rights. I mean, all of the issues we’re talking about, we need proactive, visionary moral solutions to those. And we actually plan to have the agenda that we’re working on and that we’ll bringing to state capitals and D.C. is one that doesn’t just say can we have a little bit more? Doesn’t just say, when they cut us off of things, we want to fight back a little bit, but says in this society, in this world, it is immoral and it is violent for people to be without food, to be without adequate education, to be without all the things that human beings need to survive and thrive and that a different way is possible.
We will be working with organizations who are made up of very grassroots leaders. This campaign is being done with poor people not for poor people and poor folks are in the lead of much of this work. And then we’ve also connected up with other organizations, advocacy organizations and activists, as well as moral leaders and clergy to be able to say that time’s up. We need a moral movement in this country that puts the needs of people first, and puts people first and puts corporations and the wealthy on notice for the fact that we need to change the direction that things are going in.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Liz. Thank you for joining us today. Thank you for doing this campaign, along with your colleagues and we’ll be there with you during those 40 days and along the way. Thank you so much.
LIZ THEOHARIS: Thank you. Thank you.
SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here, on The Real News Network.