Reflection on The Poor People’s Campaign

The Martin Luther King, Jr. that must be recovered in our collective memory is the prophet of 1966 and 1967. Kat has written about his speech from 1967 decrying the militarism (of the war against communism in Vietnam) that led to an underfunding of domestic poverty programs, and Dex has shared with us King’s speech that he gave on several occasions throughout 1967 and 1968 about the “Other America”—the America thrown in the face of the privileged classes by the riots of the long, hot summer of 1967. After over a decade in the national spotlight, King began to openly speak of reparations, connecting civil rights to access to land, resources, and power. He began speaking of what Christians could call Jubilee, a radical redistribution of economic and political power. This is the Dr. King we don’t know—the one we don’t often teach about in our classrooms or remember collectively in our retellings—yet the one we’d be better off for knowing.

King is often remembered chiefly as the challenger of segregation in Birmingham or the champion of voting rights in Selma, but by the end of his life, he is directly confronting the economic structures that ensure African Americans will be kept without wealth, even once civil rights are legislated. In late 1967, to address these structural problems, he officially launched the Poor People’s Campaign.

Many of us know this is what brought him to Memphis in early 1968—to support the garbage workers who worked forty hours a week and still qualified for welfare. King wanted to see reparations, and fair lending from banks, and a federal job guarantee program, because he recognized that there is something both dignifying and inextricably human about work. He wanted the American empire to “remember the poor.”  

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II (and company) has relaunched the Poor People’s Campaign this year as a national call for moral revival. When Barber spoke at a Moral Mondays event in the fall at Mississippi Boulevard, he noted how there is no substantial talk of the poor in our politics. Our shared vision of life together (politics) includes the poor only as an afterthought.

And even those of us who have involved ourselves in the work of empowering people who live in poverty hold that perspective. The needs of my students become secondary to a paycheck, to evaluation scores, a stipend, reputation in my school and district—even though we are teachers who moved to Memphis, or returned to Memphis, or reimagined a lifelong relationship to this city, to teach children trapped in cycles of concentrated, generational poverty. We still only allow the realities of the poor to confront us in a limited and negotiated way. Even now that “the poor” are not some anonymous target group of social programs, but are the very people made in the image of God who, for many of us, sit in our classrooms, stop by to chat on our porches, and worship alongside us in our churches.

In my first few years here, I had to learn to survive in the role of teacher—the role where there is an ever-flowing stream of harrowing needs presented to me by my students—but as I sit and consider my perspective five years into this work, I recognize I have built walls to insulate myself from the chaos of poverty, to have a reasonable life apart from the needs of the poor; and I have not reconsidered the nature of these walls again. I’m not saying at all that we shouldn’t have good boundaries from our work. I am asking that those of who have been in this work a while reevaluate our comportment to the lives of the poor in our city.  

Have I made the poor the center of my concern, as our Lord has, in the ways I order my life or are they an afterthought? A concern for the poor has shaped our vocation and work, but does it shape our politics, our budgeting, our place of worship? Maybe we don’t ask because we believe we are entitled to a life insulated from the needs of others, which is the gospel of the American Dream and the logic of suburbanization.

It scares me to ask myself these questions because I know what the answer will be, at least in part, but we must make space to ask again the hard questions of ourselves—the kinds of questions that caused two-thirds of Americans disapprove of Dr. King by 1966.  And not because we have to do more to be loved by God, but because it is among the poor that we find the presence of Jesus and learn dependence on the finished work of Jesus—and not our own laboring—as our efforts often end with less than successful results.

-Daniel Warner, Class of 2014