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Poor People’s Campaign asks America to face the injustices keeping millions in poverty

Shortly before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. called for an economic revolution with protections for the poorest Americans. Half a century later, a group of religious and moral leaders are planning a revival of the Poor People's Campaign, with a wave of civil disobedience in Washington. Rev. William J. Barber, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, joins Judy Woodruff for a conversation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, an effort to revive a famous movement of the sixties focused on reducing poverty, inequality and tackling social justice.

    But with such a broad agenda, will it find enough support at a polarized time?

    We start with a look at the campaign that began 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.

    I spoke with Reverend Barber recently when he was in Washington.

    Reverend William Barber, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thank you very much for joining us.

    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. Dr. William Barber:

    Well, thank you so much for having us, and on behalf of the campaign, the national — Poor People's Campaign, A National Call for a Moral Revival, and my co-chair, the Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis.

    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 commissioned a study with the Institute for Policy Studies, and also had some help with Urban Institute, anecdotal and empirical data.

    And we found — 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. Dr. 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. Dr. 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:

    Reverend Barber, I talk to people. I have read folks who agree with much of what you are saying you want, but they also are saying, you're asking for too many different things, that you should narrow your chance of ambitions, that you will have a much better chance at getting something done.

  • Rev. Dr. William Barber:

    Well, then those same people should say narrow the Constitution, because it's pretty ambitious.

    It says domestic tranquility, establishment of justice, providing for the common defense, promoting the welfare, general welfare. Narrow the moral call of the Bible that says you're supposed to care for the stranger, the hungry, the sick, the left out, the lonely, the imprisoned.

    Why is it that wealth and greed gets to ask for everything? They want tax cuts, they want that. They want to block health care, they get that. But then we tell poor people, you have to ask for one thing — 37 million people without health care? We have to fight for health care.

    Millions of people without living wages. We can't just ask for one thing, because they are systemically interlocking injustices.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If there are so many who you define as poor in this country, why aren't we seeing more people rise up and make this argument?

    I mean, right now, it's left to you and a relatively small group of people who are making this argument, having your — having the march, having your demonstrations and so forth.

  • Rev. Dr. William Barber:

    Well, I don't know if I would say a relatively small group of people.

    We have organizing committees in 40 states. We have people who are organizing. In the last two weeks, we have had thousands of people attend, over — nearly 2,000 people do civil disobedience, more than ever in the history of this country simultaneously doing nonviolent moral fusion, civil disobedience.

    There is a rising. And why? And so what we're doing is, we're launching a movement. We're not ending a movement. We're launching a movement and calling people to action. Many people do not know how bad it is. And many people who are poor and low-wealth have been broken and pushed down and ignored.

    But where we're going, from West Virginia to Wisconsin, from Alabama to Alaska, we're finding that there are thousands of people who are saying, it's time for us to stand up and refuse to be silent.

  • 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. Dr. William Barber:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What did you mean by that?

  • Rev. Dr. 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. Dr. William Barber:

    Well, I think they can.

    I think they hear that. I think, of course, the extremists who have taken over the Republican Party have just gone so far extreme. You know, they are more focused on tax cuts to the wealthy. They want to blame poor people for their problems.

    Democrats, on the other hand, are willing to talk about, say, the Affordable Care Act and talk about the middle class.

    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. Dr. William Barber:

    Thank you so much. Thank you.

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