Religious leaders, joined by members of civil rights groups, labor unions and fast food workers gathered in Washington, D.C. and more than two dozen states across the U.S. on Feb. 5th to launch the “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.” The campaign, co-chaired by Moral Mondays founder The Rev. William Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis say their mission is to continue the work of the original Poor People’s Campaign organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the late 1960s.
The coalition of groups engaged in the campaign kicked off 40 days of what they described as “moral action” to highlight “the human impact of policies which promote systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and environmental devastation. On Feb. 12 the Poor People’s Campaign joined fast food and other low-paid workers in Los Angeles, Detroit, Memphis and other cities across the U.S. to rally support for a $15 per hour minimum wage and the right to unionize.
In Memphis, hundreds of Fight for 15 activists commemorated the 50th anniversary of the city’s 1968 sanitation workers strike supported by Rev. King and the civil rights movement at the time. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-director of the Kairos Center, who, as Poor People’s campaign co-chairwoman was in Memphis to lead the protests. Here, Rev. Theoharis talks about the campaign’s goals and planned actions to challenge the evils of racism, poverty, and the nation’s distorted morality.
THE REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: So, for many years, grassroots organizations across the United States have been saying that we need to come together and build a poor people’s campaign for today. We do draw lesson on theory of theology from Dr. King and from the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967 and ’68. You know, in that campaign, the last campaign of Dr. King’s life, he was connecting the tri-apartheid evils of systemic racism, of militarism and of economic exploitation, and said that the poor and dispossessed people of all races and all geographies needed to be brought together into a united and organized force in order to kind of wake up the nation and unsettle a bunch of what was going on at the time.
And you know, we see today, 50 years later, there’s a 60 percent increase in poverty since there was in 1968. The military budget is even more of a huge section of our budget than it was 50 years ago. And systemic racism is still alive and well. So we’re building a new Poor People’s Campaign – reigniting the campaign Dr. King and others were leading 50 years and saying that it’s kind of a time for deep moral revival in our nation. We need to shake things up and we need a breakthrough to be able to prioritize what’s really needed on the key issues of our day. And see that the real moral issues of our time are things like healthcare and living wages and education for our kids and votings rights and an end to the kind of pollution and ecological devastation that are taking place.
So poor people and clergy and grassroots activists and others are coming together and calling for this campaign. And pledging to be a part of 40 days of moral direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience in this coming spring.
BETWEEN THE LINES: And Rev. Theoharis, could you lay out some of the goals that you are working on within the Poor People’s Campaign? What are some of the policy demands that you’d like to communicate to Congress and the White House?
THE REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: Yeah, so we are calling for 40 days of moral direct action focused on a moral agenda that is still in the works. Right now, the goals of the campaign are really two-fold. One is to shift the moral narrative that is happening out there in our nation right now. When we looked at looked at the 2016 presidential election, there were 26 presidential debates in the primary and in the general election. And in those 26 debates, not one of them focused on problems of living wages or universal health care, of poverty and voting, of ecological devastation and the problems of the war economy. And so, to be able to have gotten through such an expensive and such a interesting 2016 presidential debates and not have the issues that are affecting the majority of people in this country the majority of the time, means that we need to do something to shift the narrative and make it impossible that our elected officials and candidates can talk about what they’re going to do and not actually speak to poverty and racism and the issues that are plaguing our nation today.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Rev. Theoharis, can tell us a bit about some of the dates coming up for actions that the Poor People’s Campaign has planned around the country?
THE REV. LIZ THEOHARIS: From March 1-5, many folks with the Poor People’s Campaign and National Call for Moral Revival will be in Selma, Alabama. It’s the 53rd anniversary of Bloody Sunday and we’ll be there making the connection between poverty and economic injustice and voting rights. Around April 4, which is the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign and the National Call for Moral Revival will be in Memphis again with the National Civil Rights Museum and with others that are looking to the legacy of Dr. King 50 years after his assassination.
Then on June 23, we’ll be doing a mass mobilization in Washington, D.C. where we’re talking about the next steps in the campaign and what people are called to do to continue to build power and organization amongst those that are impacted by the injustices that are in our world today. And so this spring, we’re hoping that folks all across the country and state Houses will take place in these 40 days, this six weeks of organizing and education and moral direct action.
For more information visit Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival at poorpeoplescampaign.org, Principles at poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/fundamental-principle/ and history at poorpeoplescampaign.org/index.php/poor-peoples-campaign-1968.