A Moral Revolution
It’s Mother’s Day and the National City Christian Church in Washington, D.C.., is nearly filled to capacity. Strangers came together from across the nation — Tennessee and Texas, Maine and Mexico, Connecticut and Kentucky, Kansas and Alaska, Iowa and Indiana, Mississippi and Michigan, Arkansas and Alabama. You could call it a revival of sorts. But this was no local action where a small-town preacher saved souls in a tiny un-air-conditioned tent on a hot summer night. No, the Poor People’s Campaign was holding a moral revival to save the soul of this nation — six weeks of nonviolent direct action at over 30 statehouses, and this was the kickoff. On this evening, a choir of about five leads the congregation in a medley of Freedom Songs — “Woke Up This Morning (with My Mind Stayed on Freedom),” “We Are Not Afraid,” “Oh, Freedom,” “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” and “This Little Light of Mine,” the latter a favorite tune of Mississippi civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer. And like any good revival there were testimonies — a woman from Selma, Ala., spoke of having to bury her daughter because her state didn’t expand Medicaid. Another woman says she has lived in her in-laws’ basement because her family could not afford a home of their own. The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, founder of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, lays out the numbers. America has 140 million poor people, 38 million poor children, 11 million poor seniors. Thirteen million citizens can’t afford water, she says. Theoharis notes that 75 percent of the poor are women and children; 60 percent are Black. “This is not right,” Theoharis says to loud cheers. “Somebody is hurting our people, and it has gone on far too long and we won’t be silent anymore.” Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a Poor People’s Campaign that shed light on the plight of the poor. In a statement as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said the group would “petition the government for specific reforms” and “build militant, nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty.” King emphasized that the campaign would not be a “mere one-day march in Washington, but a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will go to stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.” King was assassinated before he could see the campaign come to fruition. But now, the Rev. William Barber II and Theoharis have taken up the mantle. “Tomorrow is not a festival,” Barber tells the crowd at National City church. “We are here to birth and launch a movement. We are trying to get people to see the pain of this nation so this nation will change. The cost of inequality is too high for America to continue down this road. This cannot be the America we settle for.” Their 40-day nonviolent direct action was just the beginning of a multiyear initiative, Barber said. He talked to The Crisis about the mission of the 2018 Poor People’s Campaign and galvanizing a nation through moral resistance. What is a moral revival? In the context of the “Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival,” we have concluded that our current language is too puny; it's too left and right. Democrat, Republican, just constantly puts people at odds. And then issues become just simply partisan, what Republicans think and what Democrats think. Nobody asks — very few people ask the deeper question, the moral question. We're not talking about personal morality. We're talking about public policy morality. So, in the Constitution of the United States, there are four moral principles that every policy should be judged by and that is: whether or not that policy promotes domestic tranquility, as opposed to promoting domestic division; whether those policies promote the establishment of justice, as opposed to policies that are unjust and unequal; whether those policies promote providing for the common defense; and promoting the general welfare. So, general welfare, justice, domestic tranquility, and the common defense are the moral parameters, or the moral critiques that we should put on every piece of legislation. When we say a moral revival, what we're saying is, we're seeing too much legislation that does not reflect those principles. And there needs to be a revival of our moral critique. There needs to be something that says, look, some of these issues are not about the Republican and Democrat. They're right versus wrong. In the scriptures, the moral critique of a nation is always rooted in where does that nation stand in relationship to how it treats their poor, how it treats women, how it treats children, how it treats the undocumented and the immigrant. Jesus laid it out. "When I was hungry, did you feed me? Sick, did you care for me? In prison, did you visit me? Naked, did you clothe me?" He said those things are what critiques a nation. We need to start examining tax policy, poverty programs, health care, living wages — not by do the Republicans stand for it, or if the Democrats want it, but whether or not either the implementation of those things, or the denial of those things represent our deepest moral values. That is what the abolitionists said to America. They never talked about partisan. They talked about [morality]. That's what the Civil Rights Movement said, the Women's Suffrage Movement, the Social Gospel Movement. Every movement that fundamentally changed the political direction and the historic reality of this nation had within it some moral ground. When Medgar Evers led people in Mississippi, he never talked partisan. He talked about what was right versus wrong. When Dr. King led people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, he never said Democrats or Republicans. He talked about the morality. So a moral revival is a deep, empirical, and anecdotal evaluation of the nation, based on our deepest religious and constitutional principles, where we restore to the public square this kind of critique. We must have what we call a deeply moral, deeply constitutional, anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice, pro-labor fusion movement. And we can never simply have helicopter leadership. We have to build [the] movement from the bottom. Tell me about what you learned traveling to poor areas throughout the U.S. Did you learn anything new? I learned the depth of people's hunger for a moral movement, and the depth of pain that we do not hear in the media, which is tragic. I learned that our politics were deeply flawed even more than I already knew. I learned that the problems and the pain were real. The politics is so off-center, and so captured and controlled and imprisoned by this left/right weak, anemic analysis, that we need really a third Reconstruction in this country. And the only way I know that you can have a third Reconstruction is looking at the first two. You have to have a kind of moral movement that cuts through all of that and says, "Wait a minute." What surprised you the most? It's hard to say what surprised me most, because so much surprised me, so much hurt. I've been captured now by what I've seen. I can't ignore what I've heard. So, I'll just tell you a few highlights. Grays Harbor, this White town, is the ZIP code with the highest number of White millennial poor people. I didn't know Dallas — where we have all the oil, all the big buildings — had the highest level of child poverty in the nation. Dallas? Dallas, Texas. I didn't know that. I didn't know that people literally, on the border, have been thrown out of this country for administrative mistakes, and that there was a group of Latino women and men who have been battling with border patrol, negotiating just so they could get three minutes in the middle of the Rio Grande [with their families]. Oh, my. I also didn't know that less than 20 miles, well actually, in the county that the Selma-to-Montgomery march went through, there were places in that county that looked like the Civil Rights Movement had never come through. People said, "We've got raw sewage.” And they took us to places where people literally let children play around raw sewage bubbling up. There've been so many. I remember when we were in Compton [Calif.]. One lady came to me and she was just crying. She said, "Let me tell you something. I've been waiting for this for 40 some years. I've been waiting for a movement that would use the word poor again. And I want you to know there's a whole group of welfare women. We've been fighting for years. And we're with you. We're with this movement.” I was surprised by the fight, and the hope, and the determination. What does that say about our country, about America? It says that the movement, see, the Poor People's Campaign didn't stop. It was assassinated. We've got to always remember that. The Civil Rights Movement didn't end, it was killed. People's heads were blown off. Dr. King's spine was severed. He was shot with a deer rifle. We can't forget that. Medgar was shot. Malcolm was shot. The Kennedys were shot. Shot, shot, shot. People died. It's not like the movement ended because it accomplished everything. And I think people went into a kind of psychic trauma. Almost like a post-traumatic stress disorder. And then there was so much COINTELPRO (FBI’s counterintelligence program). There was so much done by this country to undermine the movement. But when they started seeing this coming together, this fusion, that was the most dangerous transformation in the nation. Because if all of the poor people get together, working poor people, working Black people, working White people, labor unions, that's a fundamental shift in the nation. The greatest fear in America, particularly by extremists and racists, was the work King was doing in the South to bring White and Black people together in the South, because if you can control the South, you control about 171 electoral votes if you only control 13 states. There was a study done by a group that said if you register 30 percent of the unregistered Black voters and they connected with progressive White voters in the South and Brown people, about five states could change — North Carolina, Georgia among them. But the issue is it can't happen during the election. It takes a movement that's willing to work even when there's not an election going on. You said the 2018 Poor People’s Campaign was just the beginning of a multiyear movement. What do you want to see achieved? The first 40 days was to shift the narrative, to begin massive voter mobilization among the poor and impacted communities and to begin to be a power among poor and impacted people, where they can speak. We stand with them, not for them. We have actually developed a list of demands. That's what our goals are. We want a radical overhaul of voting rights. We want full restoration of the Voting Rights Act. We want single-payer health care. We want living wages, a minimum of $15 an hour. We want every child to have the right to a well-funded public education. We want to end the cycle of re-segregation, where we're going backward in re-segregation of our schools rather than forward. We want to see a shift in the politics and who is making the laws, so that we can repeal this tax cut that's going to devastate. And then ... we're going to be working on a higher-ground moral budget. We have economists and historians all coming together to actually help design, not a Black agenda, but an agenda that deals with systemic racism, that deals with systemic poverty, ecological, war economy. We're not trying to create an organization as much as create a movement. We've got enough organizations. We just need to learn how to work together more. We need folk to understand it's all right to work in your silo, but every now and then, we've got some things we can do together. We know it's not going to shift overnight. Martin knew that. Everybody knew that. But everything we hold dear today, 100 years ago people said it was impossible. Dr. King, when he went from Selma to Montgomery, people forget, there was no election that year. The politicians did not change. The same politicians that were there in March were there in August when they signed the Voting Rights Act — the same Dixiecrat and the same Republican. What changed was a movement that created a different consciousness. And the politicians could not do what they wanted to do or what they had been elected to do. They had to adjust. We need a moral adjustment in this country. What difference do you think this Poor People’s Campaign is going to make? Do you think President Trump is even listening to your calls? Well, the first audience isn't Trump and the legislature. The first audience is to call those 140 million people to arms. Too often, we sit back and wait for the next election. We were told the governor didn't listen to us in North Carolina, but he ain't governor no more. The legislators didn't listen to us when we told them not to pass that voter suppression. But it's been overturned. It took two or three years. The first thing a movement does is it has to not change the people that are fighting you, but change the people who need to be coming together. We're showing folk that we need to come together. We are going to put a face on this. Every movement, the forces that be never got better at first. That's what we have to remember. When they first went to Birmingham, Bull Connor got worse. He didn't get better. Trump, I pray and hope he will support, but we're not even focused on Trump. We're focused on the Congress. The Congress can pass laws. And they have elections every two years. So, I have great hope because every movement that ever stood up in the past eventually won. Now, did it win quickly without bruises? No. But [it] won. America’s heart needs to be broken to see what's going on. America's heart will not be broken if the people who are being broken stay in hiding. We have to come forth. There has to be a people who will not simply be silent because the odds are overwhelming. And who will not worship the forces of injustice to the point that you just say, “Oh, well. There's nothing we can do.” Somebody has to worship and love justice enough [that] even if everything doesn't change immediately, I'm going to be a part of sounding the charge that change must come. n — Interview by Lottie L. Joiner is the Editor in Chief of The Crisis Magazine.