What Happened to the New Poor Peoples’ Campaign?

New Orleans   We are in the thick of the forty days of week by week protests called to take place around the country by the Poor Peoples’ Campaign:  A Call for Moral Revival.  After huge pre-campaign publicity that included a lengthy profile of the campaign’s leader, North Carolina’s Rev. William Barber, in The New Yorker and other national papers and publications, now the silence is deafening.  There has been virtually no national press that I have seen on the effectiveness or even the existence of the protests on various themes.  The campaign’s own website seems to prove this as well with no postings of articles on its “press” section since the campaign began.  What’s happening?

Local 100 United Labor Unions is a member of the campaign in Little Rock, but there’s no evidence of the current campaign in New Orleans, Houston, or Dallas where we also have offices.  The Little Rock protests, joined by the union and our ally, the Arkansas Community Organizations (ACO), formerly Arkansas ACORN, have been reported locally.  They have been regular and feisty with occasional arrests for civil disobedience of several people, but they have been smallish with often only twenty or so participants.  Large rallies in Washington, D.C. are heralded on the campaign’s website for later in June, so the energy and emphasis for the campaign may be going towards those events, but the lack of action in many cities is worrisome, especially since the list of partners was extensive, including a number of large labor unions and religious denominations.   Normally, that level of support would have translated into a more recognizable local footprint for the campaign, but tellingly, none of the national church-based community organizing networks Faith in Action, Gamaliel, DARE, or the IAF are listed as campaign partners.

What are we to conclude at the midpoint of what we would have hoped indicated a resurgence of interest in and activity by the poor?  It seems clear that people so far just aren’t answering the “call for moral revival.”  They are voting with their feet and their bottoms are staying in their chairs.  People are moving around politics everywhere, but that has not translated to the campaign.  In fact, the almost apolitical nature of the campaign and its focus on a moral awakening, rather than empowerment has been one of the continual, but quiet criticisms.

In fairness, it is hard, if not impossible to assemble a “volunteer army” for social change, and there are few signs that the campaign fully understood the need for infrastructure and a deeply supported organizing structure.  Our union gets lots of calls from the campaign to act, but aside from the hectoring, little real support from the campaign itself.  A campaign of any kind faces a high mountain to climb when it is asking organizations and supporters to put aside their daily work in order to pick up the banner for something else, especially when the call involves something different week after week.  This may not have been a winning strategy for the Poor Peoples’ Campaign.

Rev. Barber and his Moral Mondays efforts in North Carolina were galvanizing while he was head of the state NAACP there, and he has clearly become an important voice for change and a tireless advocate for the poor.  The NAACP is not listed as a partner in this campaign though, which also speaks to some unresolved internal issues.  One fears that the campaign’s embrace of the national press and the speaker’s bureau approach rather than real organizational building and support may have inadvertently made this effort more about building Barber’s “brand,” than building something real on the ground.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master in the pulpit, but he led a deeply rooted organizational base and led a real movement.  Making the call isn’t enough, and never is a substitute for real action and work.  We need a real poor peoples’ campaign, so let’s hope the seeds are being sown now to build for more and more in the future.

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Please enjoy Lori McKenna’s People Get Old.

Ice Cream and Cigarettes by Million Miles.

Thanks to KABF.

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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.

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