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On MLK Day, the need for a ‘deeply moral argument’ about American injustice

On Martin Luther King Day, we return to a segment we first aired last year, about an effort to revive one of Dr. King’s signature programs, what he called the Poor People’s Campaign. Judy Woodruff sat down with Reverend William J. Barber, co-chair of the 2018 organization, to discuss its mission of reducing poverty and inequality and tackling issues of social injustice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On Martin Luther King day, we return to a segment we first brought you last year about an effort to revive one of Dr. King's signature programs.

    He called it the Poor People's Campaign, aimed at reducing poverty and inequality and tackling issues of social injustice. He started the program a little more than 50 years ago.

    Shortly before his death in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expanded his civil rights campaign to include calls for economic justice. He called for an economic revolution that included protection and services for the poorest Americans.

    He would call it the Poor People's Campaign.

  • Martin Luther King Jr.:

    We're coming to get our check.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The campaign would bring together poor people from across the country, and from across racial, ethnic and geographic lines, including poor whites, for a March on Washington.

  • Martin Luther King Jr.:

    Even if you have to bring your whole family, we are going to have in Washington facilities and we're going to have food and we're going to demand that the government do something about these conditions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The first step was to construct a shantytown called Resurrection City on the National Mall, housing thousands of participants in a form of nonviolent civil disobedience. Dr. King himself would never make it to the March on Washington. He died that spring.

    But weeks after his assassination, 50,000 people gathered in solidarity, demanding economic reform on the steps where Dr. King had professed "I have a dream."

  • Man:

    We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America's wealth and opportunity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Half-a-century later, a group of religious and moral leaders are planning a wave of civil disobedience in Washington, a revival of the Poor People's Campaign.

    It's headed in part by the Reverend William Barber, who's the co-chair of the campaign. He led demonstrators at a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol this month. And he was arrested, alongside the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a key figure in the 1968 movement.

    When the original Poor People's Campaign took place, it was 19 — it was 50 years ago. Dr. Martin Luther King was involved. After he was assassinated, it continued, but what is the connection between then and now?

  • Rev. William Barber:

    Let me say that the connection was, first of all, it did continue, that people realized Dr. King was right. Racism, poverty and militarism were interconnected.

    The connection today is, we did a study. We did something called the Souls of Poor Folk, auditing America 50 years after the Poor People's Campaign. What did we find? Today, there are 140 million poor and low-wealth people.

    Today, there are 250,000 people that die every year from low wealth. We have less voting rights today because of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act than we had in 1965, that we have 62 million people who are working poor, who work less than a living wage, and 14 million children who are in poverty.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Those numbers are overwhelming. They're daunting. You're not proposing to do away with poverty, are you?

  • Rev. William Barber:

    We are saying there are five interlocking injustices that America has to face, because they continue to cause policy violence.

    That is systemic racism, particularly seen through the lens of voter suppression, where people use voter suppression to get elected, and then, once they get elected, they pass policies that hurt the poor, mostly white women, children and the working poor.

    Systemic race — systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism that says, you don't have to address those issues.

    We are saying, yes, America is going to have to face these five interlocking injustices and change them.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Why can't you work through the exiting political system, work to elect political figures who agree with your agenda?

  • Rev. William Barber:

    Well, several reasons.

    Number one, we had 26 presidential debates in the last presidential election on the Democrat and Republican side. Not one hour was spent on poverty. Not one hour was spent on voter suppression and restoring the Voting Rights Act, not one hour on the war economy and militarism.

    So, if we're not even having the conversation, the first thing we have to change is the attention violence. We have an attention violence when it comes to the poverty and the poor. And we must change that before you can change the agenda, and there must be a movement of the people from the bottom up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have said that the nation's problem is not that we don't have enough money. You said it's that we don't have the moral capacity to face what ails society.

  • Rev. William Barber:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    What did you mean by that?

  • Rev. William Barber:

    That when you look at our deepest moral framework of the Constitution and our deepest moral values of our religious tradition, we too often have a political conversation that talks about left vs. right, military or middle class.

    That's too puny. It's too narrow; 43.5 percent of this country is poor and low-wealth. People are dying.

    Even Joseph Stiglitz, the economist, said that America has to face the cost of inequality. What I'm saying is, we can't just have a left-right argument anymore. We need to have a deeply moral argument that says, this is not just about Democrats or Republicans, this is about America.

    What kind of democracy do we want to be? You cannot have a democracy continue to exist when 400 people make an average of $97,000 an hour, and you lock people up who simply want $15 and the union.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Does either political party come closer to your goals?

  • Rev. William Barber:

    Well, I think they can.

    But the reality is, neither party is willing to put right in front of America the issues of systemic racism, of systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and say the word poverty.

    It's almost as though we have tried to remove even saying the word poverty, when, in fact, the majority of the poor people in this country are white, women, children, working people and the disabled.

    So, we have to change our narrative in this country. And the only way you can change the narrative is to change the narrator. That's why this campaign is focused on three things, breaking through the narrative, massive voter mobilization among the poor, and power building from the bottom up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Reverend William Barber, the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign in 2018, thank you very much.

  • Rev. William Barber:

    Thank you so much. Thank you.

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