[Episcopal News Service – Washington, D.C.] Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led a Poor People’s Campaign. As part of that campaign, during an April 1968 trip to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of African-American sanitation workers striking for higher wages, King was shot dead. Today, a new Poor People’s Campaign is under way and Episcopalians are getting involved.
“Today you are the founding members of the 21st century’s ‘Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.’ We gather today for a call to action. We gather here declaring it’s time for a moral uprising all across America,” said the Rev. William Barber on June 23. He co-chairs the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, along with the Rev. Liz Theoharis.
“This is not the commemoration of what happened 50 years ago; this is the reenactment and the re-inauguration,” Barber said. “Because you do not commemorate prophets and prophetic movements. You go in the blood where they fell and reach down and pick up the baton and carry it the next mile of the way. For three years we’ve been laying a foundation from the bottom up, not the top down.”
King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organized the original Poor People’s Campaign, demanding economic and human rights for poor people across America.
Barber, a minister and an activist, led the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina and is the president of Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit that seeks to build a moral agenda and redeem the heart and soul of the United States. Theoharis, a Presbyterian minister, is founder and co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary.
Thousands of people, including at least 100 Episcopalians, from across the country representing social justice organizations, churches and faith-based initiatives gathered on June 23 in Washington, D.C., for the Poor People’s Campaign rally and march. For three-and-a-half hours on the National Mall, speakers — the majority of them living on the front lines of poverty — shared their personal stories relating to systemic racism, environmental degradation and other poverty indicators. Following the rally, attendees took to the street and marched to the Capitol chanting slogans like, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like” and “The People United Will Not Be Divided.”
The rally and march in Washington followed 40 days of state-level action organized around six themes: systemic racism, poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and national morality.
The rally and march also followed an intense week of news coverage about U.S. immigration policy. Since early April, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy has been separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. The administration’s family separation policy and the humanitarian crisis unfolding at the border have drawn international condemnation and have further tarnished the United States’ reputation abroad.
“America is great because she is good,” said Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, referencing Alexis de Tocqueville in a video address broadcast on the big screen to the crowd gathered on the mall.
“We must make America great again, not by force, not by power, not by might, but by goodness. Make America great by justice, make America great by freedom, make America great by equality. The Poor People’s Campaign doesn’t simply celebrate the past, though it remembers the past. It remembers the courage of Dr. King and others who carried on the first Poor People’s Campaign,” said Curry.
“The Poor People’s Campaign gathers in order to help this nation live out its true values, its moral decency, its human compassion, its sense of justice and right. We want this nation to be a nation where there is liberty and justice for all. We want this to be a nation where racism does not stain our moral character, where bigotry is not heard of or seen any more in our land. Where injustices of the past are righted by making a new future. That is the America that we seek. That is why you gather. That is why you march. That is why we together seek to bring an end to human poverty in this the land of plenty. We must make possible the day that will come when no child will go to bed hungry in this land ever again.”
In today’s America, 43.1 million people, or 12.7 percent of the population, live in poverty. That statistic matches the percentage of impoverished people in 1968, when the population was 200 million, compared to 327 million today.
“The Episcopal Church was the second denomination to officially sign on as co-sponsors of the Poor People’s Campaign, and this is probably the first time our denomination has done that. It came through the act of Executive Council written in that the church leadership would lead the church in this deliberate and productive partnership so not just in name only, but we would bring people to the movement and we’d bring the issues back into the church,” said the Rev. Melanie Mullen, the church’s director of reconciliation, justice and creation care.
Episcopalians, lay and ordained, engaged in direct action in their state capitals throughout the 40 days of action, but the Poor People’s Campaign goes beyond that.
“This is not just about 40 days and it’s over. We want to be able to encourage and educate our laypeople, our people in the pews, on how to live faith in public life,” said Mullen. “We also want to create a new paradigm for what it means to be clergy; that it’s safe and acceptable to do public faith and to learn from each other’s example — how to teach, how to preach, lead people in the streets. We’re doing something new and hopefully with the support of Executive Council going forward, we can help do culture change in our church that will help change the country.”
When King launched the original Poor People’s Campaign a half century ago, the Episcopal Church and the other white mainline denominations politely declined participation, said the Rev. Stan Runnels, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City and an Executive Council member.
“The important thing about this, when the Rev. Dr. Barber revisited this on the 50th anniversary, to me and many, is that the Episcopal Church not make the same mistake it made many years ago,” said Runnels, in an interview with Episcopal News Service following Morning Prayer at Church of the Epiphany.
Over the years, the Episcopal Church has been great about “talking the talk,” but has failed to embody the moral calling and to be an incarnate witness, said Runnels. “As Bishop Curry talks about the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, it also has to be the justice movement.”
In creating a strategy for a new Poor People’s Campaign, Barber and other leaders recognized that justice issues have only expanded and gotten worse since 1968, he said.
“With a great bit of courage and foresight, the leadership of this new Poor People’s Campaign has broadened the scope of issues addressed. … It’s become sort of a holistic expression of all the issues that affect people, each of which in one way or the other, connects to the underlying problem of poverty,” said Runnels.
“Where in ’68 it was clear that racism translated into poverty for one component of the population, the African-American component, in 2018 the issues of poverty are impacting a much broader cross-section and are manifested in many, many different ways. The exciting thing about this campaign is its polymorphic nature, it’s engaging so many different issues.”
Episcopalians gathered not far from the White House at 8:30 a.m. on June 23 at the Church of the Epiphany, for Morning Prayer and to share their thoughts and experiences from the 40 days of action in advance of the rally and march.
“This movement is a long-term campaign, not a one and done,” said the Rev. Glenna J. Huber, Epiphany’s rector, during the Morning Prayer. “It’s not for the weak or the fainthearted. Not all are called to be arrested or take action, but all are called to pray, and all are called to witness.”
— Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service.