You wouldn’t know it from watching the news or reading the papers (assuming you do), but there’s a new Poor People’s Campaign in the USA , launched on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis. It was the final campaign of King’s life, the hardest and most ambitious, challenging the “evil triplets” of poverty, racism and militarism. He was stoned trying to integrate housing in Chicago in 1966, shunned by his allies and the media for denouncing the Vietnam War in 1967 and finally gunned down fighting for a 10 cents an hour raise for Memphis sanitation workers in 1968. His later efforts proved far less popular with the elites and general public than ending racial segregation in the South in the early 1960s.
The new Campaign is led by Rev. William Barber, a North Carolina pastor and former head of that states’ NAACP, and Rev. Liz Theoharris, co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice in New York. They are supported by a gaggle of over 60 religious, civil rights and social justice groups, from the American Friends Service Committee and Democratic Socialists of America to the National Welfare Rights Union and World Beyond War. In other words, the same collection of left wing, “progressive” groups that launch internet petitions, show up for rallies, raise funds, agitate for broad social change and lose nearly every major election and policy debate. Obviously, more needs to be done.
They have updated the “evil triplets” of poverty, racism and militarism and appropriately added a fourth, ecological devastation. Their list of proposed “Demands” is too lengthy to detail here. It unsurprisingly includes something from the wish lists of every supporting group, as most committee documents do. One thing is conspicuously absent: the lack of a clear political strategy to get from here to there. Is this a political platform or social movement? What’s the difference?
In my view a political platform brings you into the realm of party politics, of running candidates to win elections by uniting a broad and diverse coalition of voters. A social movement is a form mass protest, an outside pressure group that agitates for specific changes in public policy to benefit the aggrieved and advance the common good. In my life time, three social movements have succeeded: African American, women’s and gay rights. All followed the same formula: clearly defined injustices perpetrated on an identifiable group with internal solidarity; external allies in the media, academia and elite circles; articulate leaders and committed followers with a clearly communicated vision of the future; and especially fortunate timing to tell a message people were ready, willing and able to hear.
Do poor people share any of these traits? Unfortunately, no and not in the foreseeable future. They do not make campaign contributions or vote in proportional numbers. They have no identifiable poor spokesmen, in part because they’re a stigmatized group, and anyone with the requisite leadership, organizational and communications skills would quickly work their way out of poverty. While the general public supports increasing the minimum wage and jobs programs, there is little taste for the significant redistributive taxation and social disruption required to make “myth of meritocracy” and “equal opportunity” more than just a mirage.
Beginning on Mother’s Day and continuing for the next six weeks, the Campaign will hold protests in 40 state capitals, including your own. They’re asking people to get arrested, so maybe you’ll see a news blip. It will culminate in a mass rally in Washington DC on June 23. I will probably be there, “showing the flag” in support, and I hope you join us. But it won’t be nearly enough; it never is. Not until the bottom portion of the population is mobilized to vote their interest in sufficient numbers and the upper classes, especially the top 10%, are moved by compassion or necessity (probably the latter) to sacrifice a greater part of their good fortune for the common good.
As children ask on long car trips: ‘are we there yet; how much longer?” The answer: just keep moving forward.