Martin Luther King Jr’s Warning about Liberals and the Poor Peoples’ Campaign

New Orleans   By favorite passage from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” written April 16, 1963 is worth remembering on this day when we are confronting blatant racism from the White House, obfuscations and fabrications from US Senators Tom Cotton from Arkansas and David Perdue from Georgia who suddenly rushed to his defense curing an earlier memory loss about President Trump’s remarks, and the quandary of so many who are trying to find sure footing, and unlike the Senators haven’t lost their memory or integrity.

King’s passage was pointed, when he wrote,

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I thought of his words often when ACORN was under attack and deserted by so many allies and friends some years ago. I also thought of this passage as I listened to discussion recently by some organizations and activists about participation in the latest version of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, planned for this spring and summer at the 50th anniversary of the first campaign convened by King, the SCLC, and others.

The question under debate went to the heart of the call for a “moral crusade” and civil disobedience in the coming campaign. Organizations and others were uncertain in their response, because they were confused at this stage in the planning at the lack of available details that would focus the campaign. Would there be action against the attacks on the poor or in the words of one minister, would the local events of the campaign just be “pep rallies?” Some were hopeful that the platform of the campaign would be more focused as more detailed plans emerged.

A more pointed critique goes to the heart of King’s letter. Several people pointed out that the big event in 2018 is the midterm election and the organizing focus already pointed at the prospects of flipping control of both houses of Congress. The essential argument many made was how could a campaign or crusade be effective if it lacked political content and focus. Was the campaign already suffering from a failure of will that would distract attention from the resistance witnessed in the Alabama Senate race upset? Were the good church people so often both the backbone and bane of King’s struggle also trying to dilute the impact of the campaign by appealing to morals on the spiritual side, rather than rolling up their sleeves and jumping into the more divisive grounds of hard political fights which could both protect and advance the interests of the poor?

We might fairly ask in these times, “What would Martin Luther King have done?”

There seems little doubt from his courage in the civil rights struggles, and then his opposition to the Vietnam War and his embrace of class concerns with the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, that he would not have shied from condemnation of the Trump system and leadership in the political resistance of this moment as well.


The New Poor Peoples’ Campaign for 2018

New Orleans   Thinking about the new year on the first, fresh day of 2018, let’s make a note to pay close attention to the development of the New Poor Peoples’ Campaign on the 50th anniversary of the old Poor Peoples’ Campaign.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the first Poor Peoples’ Campaign in March 1968 in one of his last efforts before his assassination in Memphis, which will also mark its tragic 50th anniversary in 2018. This time around the Rev. William Barber, well-known for his Moral Monday crusades in North Carolina as head of the NAACP in that state, is one of the co-chairs of this effort. In the same vein, the 2018 edition is also being touted as a moral crusade with a significant religious and church-based appeal.

The details are starting to emerge on the planning. In a nutshell, the campaign plans to kickoff on Mother’s Day in the spring in forty or more cities hoping to mobilize tens of thousands in weekly protests around different themes critical to supporting the advancement of lower income families and culminating in a June march on Washington. Targeting states and cities is a smart adaptation of the first, more DC-centered campaign and its difficult logistics and politics 50 years ago. Much of the impetus behind the new campaign is coming from religious denominations and though grassroots organizations are noted none of them are mentioned on the campaign’s website or in most of the articles thus far.

Tactically, the new campaign is putting civil disobedience at the center of its recruitment. The early website is largely a placeholder, but is clear in asking for supporters whether they are willing to engage in civil disobedience. The campaign is signaling that it is not going to play the numbers-game, but wants to make its mark with the quiet rectitude of arrests.

Will it work? Will people care? Who knows, but besides the strength of the campaigns historical connection and its ability to link current struggles to the old civil rights movement and some of its veterans, including King, the timing may end up important for other reasons. House Speaker Ryan is widely telegraphing his interest in going after entitlements, and that’s a euphemism for targeting the poor, elderly, disabled and powerless. Senate Majority Leader McConnell has said that he doesn’t want to go there in an election year for fear of fueling the resistance with even more fire, but he has also contradicted himself several times. All of which should make them targets and could synchronize with the timing of the campaign making whatever pressure the effort could mobilize critical in withstanding even more draconian cuts to social service programs and the families that benefit.

It’s worth staying tuned and being ready to respond as the details of this version of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign become clearer. Regardless, anything that focuses on the plight of lower income families in America today is a good thing, so these efforts need to be met with good will and encouragement in the new year.