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Poor People’s Campaign Redux, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

By Joseph Rosenbloom

Demonstrators participating in the Poor People's March at Lafayette Park and on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC.
Demonstrators participating in the Poor People's March at Lafayette Park and on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC, June 18, 1968.

As a graduate student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about the social ill of poverty and vowed to do something about it. He put the resolve on hold. For his first decade as a civil rights leader, he dedicated himself to ending racial segregation and discrimination against African Americans, not poverty.

By the mid-1960s, however, the idea to grapple with the issue of poverty had seized him with a fierce urgency. “What does it profit a man,” he often quipped, “to be able to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?” So he devised a bold, comprehensive, multiracial strategy to attack poverty head on.

In December of 1967, he unveiled what would become known as the Poor People’s Campaign. It was a plan to mobilize thousands of poor people from around the country to join him in staging massive nonviolent protests in Washington, DC, during the spring and summer of 1968. His army of poor people would engage, he said, in “militant” civil disobedience and pressure lawmakers to pass sweeping antipoverty legislation.

King did not live to put the plan into action. He was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, nineteen days before the scheduled launch of the Poor People’s Campaign. The bright hope to end poverty once and for all seemed to die with him. A patched-together version of the Washington campaign under King’s top aide, Ralph Abernathy, sputtered to a halt after six chaotic weeks in the spring of 1968.

Half a century later, another African-American civil rights leader, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II of the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, seeks to rekindle King’s antipoverty crusade. Rev. Barber, a fifty-four-year-old former president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, borrows from King’s example (his initiative is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival) and tactics (he is urging civil disobedience and “direct action” in at least twenty-five states and the nation’s capital for six weeks during the spring of 2018).

The scourge of poverty is still very much with us. In 1968, twenty-five million Americans, or 12.8 percent of the population, were living in poverty according to the US Census Bureau. Its most recent survey, in 2016, showed more than forty thousand poor or 12.7 percent impoverished Americans. Rev. Barber defines the scope of the problem more broadly. “Today one in every two Americans is poor or low income,” he says. Those are the people whom he aspires to rescue from poverty.

Rev. Barber, bearded and broad-shouldered, is an imposing presence and passionate orator with a booming, baritone voice. Like King, he has a PhD—in Rev. Barber’s case, a degree in public policy and pastoral care from Drew University at Madison, New Jersey. He has drawn public attention in North Carolina as the leader of the “Moral Mondays” protests in Raleigh. Begun in 2013, the protests countered the policies of a conservative Republican governor and legislature. To build a national following for their antipoverty cause, Rev. Barber is partnering with the Reverend Liz Theoharis, a teaching fellow at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City and longtime activist on behalf of poor people.

For all their good intentions, neither Rev. Barber nor Rev. Theoharis has the standing of a Nobel laureate and impresario of a civil rights movement as King did in 1968. At the core of his Poor People’s Campaign, King identified specific legislative goals: guaranteed employment or income for those who were not able to work, plus billions in federal investments in housing and education for poor communities. The call to protest issued thus far by Rev. Barber lacks specific targets of that kind. But the cause he is embracing seems well timed in an era when a living wage is beyond the reach of a growing number of Americans. Perhaps that downward spiral will fuel the kind of broad political support for the kind of change that King hoped to achieve fifty years ago.

Like King, who acknowledged that Washington might not adopt his antipoverty agenda quickly, Rev. Barber seems to know that success may not come fast for his initiative either. As he rolls out his campaign, Rev. Barber is quoting an adage that King also favored: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


About the Author 

Joseph RosenbloomJoseph Rosenbloom is an award-winning investigative journalist. He has been a staff reporter and editorial writer for The Boston Globe; an investigative reporter for Frontline; and a senior editor and features writer for Inc. magazine. He’s written for magazines and newspapers, including The Boston Globe MagazineInternational Herald-TribuneThe Wall Street JournalThe New York TimesThe American Lawyer and The American Prospect. Rosenbloom has a B.A. in history from Stanford University and a J.D. from Columbia University Law School. He lives in West Newton, MA. His upcoming book, Redemption: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Last 31 Hours, comes out in March 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @joerosenbloom and visit his website.