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Faith Leaders, Activists Reviving MLK's Poor People's Campaign 50 Years Later

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Reverend Liz Theoharis leads a protests holding a bullhorn alongside Poor People's Campaign co-organizer William Barber II.

Following the success of the  1963 March on Washington, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists set their sights on organizing another large protest in the nation's capital, this one for the rights of the poor.

King’s assassination in 1968 prevented him from seeing what was called the Poor People’s Campaign come to fruition, but the movement culminated in the creation of a protest camp on the National Mall in Washington D.C. that spring, and a two-week demonstration led by Coretta Scott King. The results were small, but measurable: more funding for free school lunches, the Head Start program for children and expansions to food stamp subsidies.

Faith leaders and activists in 2018 are now attempting to revive and adapt the Poor People’s Campaign. Armed with a list of demands for the “fundamental rights of the poor,” protestors descended on state capitols throughout the United States in May for 40 days civil disobedience focused on highlighting the plight of the poor. They are continuing to work toward realizing the aspirations of King and the other founding activists of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Campaign Co-chair Rev. Liz Theoharis will discuss the continued fight to end poverty at a public event at Eckerd College’s Fox Hall on Tuesday, Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

WUSF’s Roberto Roldan spoke to Theoharis ahead of her talk:

Roldan: “Tell me a bit about the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign that you and others have been attempting to organize.”

Theoharis: “We launched the Poor People’s Campaing: A National Call For Moral Revival this spring. Starting on Mother’s Day and ending on June 23, we carried out 40 days of moral, non-violent direct action. That happened in 42 states across the country and about 50,000 people participated. There were about 200 actions that took place in those 40 days, and it was the largest and the most expansive wave of non-violent civil disobedience in the 21st century.”

Roldan: “And what are some of the direct, non-violent actions you are talking about?”

Theoharis: “Folks were very creative about what those actions looked like. People stopped traffic around their state capitols, people moved in and basically established sit-ins and sleep-ins in their state capitols. Folks went to other governmental buildings and crime scene taped them, calling attention to the violence that is happening because of racism and poverty, because of poisoned water, because of sending people off to war when people are struggling here. “

Roldan: “Here in 2018, we are 50 years on from the Poor People’s Campaign that occupied the National Mall in 1968. I’m wondering, from your perspective, what do you think the political legacy has been of that movement?”

Theoharis: “Part of the reason why we launched this Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival on the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King and others called for back in ‘67/’68 was because we looked in history, we looked at the theory and theology that Dr. King and others were putting out. And we looked at what’s going on today and saw that, in the past 50 years, (the number of people living in) poverty has increased by 60 percent. We have fewer voting rights now than we did during the 1968 campaign. Things have gotten a lot worse and a lot of that is connected to how the Poor People’s Campaign of ’68 was cut short with the assassination of Dr. King and then the shutting down of that encampment. It really assassinated any possibility of real gains and achievements.”

Roldan: “It seems to me that what’s been happening politically over the last few years has brought the mainstream political conversation more in line with the Poor People’s Campaign: We’ve seen the mainstreaming of 'Medicare for all'; we’ve seen some real wins in the campaign for the $15/hour wage. Do you think this is a moment right now when your message about the 'fundamental rights of poor people' could really resonate?"

Theoharis: “What we’re finding is that it is a moment where the fundamental rights of poor people is resonating. I think that comes from a number of places. There are 140 million people who are poor and low income. That’s almost half of the U.S. population. And 80% of people will experience poverty at some point in their lives. About half of U.S. children are poor. With that reality, that it’s not some small group over here or this other group over there, but with so many people’s lives being touched by poverty and insecurity, I think that things like universal healthcare, the fight for union rights and living wage jobs, these things resonate with people, because so many are experiencing injustice. And that kind of dissonance – of there being such abundance, but then also such poverty at the same time – that is calling forth people to say ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.’ I think we are only going to see more of that."