Today's Poor People's Campaign Demands Economic Justice

In his founding editorial for The North Star, Frederick Douglass laid out his ambitions for the new publication. The mission of his anti-slavery newspaper mirrored the larger task of the abolitionist struggle, a task that those today can take inspiration from when building a fusion movement to overcome racism, poverty, militarism, ecological devastation, and the distorted narrative of Christian nationalism that some promote.

“The man who has suffered the wrong is the man to demand redress — the man struck is the man to cry out,” Douglass wrote in 1847. “And he who has endured the cruel pangs of Slavery is the man to advocate liberty. It is evident that we must be our own representatives and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly — not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends.”

In the decades leading up to emancipation, a fusion movement materialized made up of many organizations, racial and ethnic groups, religious communities, geographies, and political perspectives that differed on much. However, they agreed on the imperative of abolition. On the frontlines were the leaders who Douglass described in that first edition of The North Star: free and poor blacks, fugitives, and members of the enslaved millions who agitated, organized, and advanced a strategic genius that was uniquely their own.

The tidy history of abolition remembered today often ignores the fact that the poor and dispossessed — those who Douglass said had “suffered the wrong” — fueled the movement to end slavery. They, after all, were the first to move against slavery as they smuggled their own bodies out of bondage on the Underground Railroad — and they continued to organize revolutionary motion, articulate the moral failure of their time, and demonstrate what was necessary for transformative change.

In a nation that stripped millions of their humanity and offered no true refuge, Black people in both the Free and Slave states had little or nothing to lose and almost everything to gain by leading the way toward freedom.

The question of those who “suffer the wrong” taking the mantle of leadership is a foundational lesson from the movement to end slavery in the United States and one that raises its head in the struggles of the poor and dispossessed today. It is not difficult to imagine Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others studying The North Star as they continued the freedom struggle over a century later. By 1967, Rev. Dr. King and others had identified three major evils in the nation: racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. Just as importantly, they recognized that in the face of these triplet evils, the poor and dispossessed were in the best position to lead a broader fusion movement to eradicate poverty and lift all of society. For true, lasting change, leadership had to come from the poor across lines of division like race, religion, and geography. Not “exclusively,” but “peculiarly.”

In 1967, just a year before the first Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King explained, in language strikingly reminiscent of abolition, “There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” We need only look at the bloody year of 1968 to remind ourselves how threatening a fusion movement is to the wealthy and powerful and the lengths to which they go to suppress genuine organizing.

Fifty-one years later, the realities of poverty in America have only deepened, and the contradictions of our society have become even clearer.

The Souls of Poor Folk audit commissioned by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival documents, even within a preliminary report, revealed that there are 60 percent more poor people today than in 1968. We live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, and yet there are 140 million poor or low-income people who live within our borders. The interlocking evils of racism, poverty, and militarism continue to multiply suffering here and abroad. They are cumulatively responsible for the mounting crisis of environmental devastation and climate change. There is an urgent need for a revolution of values at a time when the myth of scarcity is weaponized to conceal and rob this nation’s historic abundance; a moral revival of democracy is necessary to counter the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism that continues to so powerfully dictate the terms of our national life.

A year ago, the Poor People’s Campaign organized six weeks of non-violent civil disobedience unprecedented in the 21st century. An organism of state-based campaigns emerged that now spans every region of the country and which echoes the fusion movements of the past. Labor, faith, and grassroots communities are coming together with poor people’s organizations, homeless unions, welfare rights networks, immigrant organizers, water protectors, and many others to demand: “Fight Poverty, Not the Poor,” “Everybody Has the Right to Live,” “Homeless Not Helpless,” “You Only Get What You’re Organized to Take.” This is a movement to end poverty open to all of moral conscience and which the poor and dispossessed lead.

In June, at our first National Congress in Washington, DC, we will release a Poor People’s Moral Budget for the nation. In it, we reveal that if we use the resources of society to first meet the needs and demands of the poor, all of society would benefit. It is not a question of economic constraint, but of moral and political will. And we know that communities of struggle across the country create that will; it is not born in a legislative office.

Today, amid tremendous danger and hope, we must not forget Douglass: “It is evident that we must be our own representatives and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly.” It is the poor and dispossessed of all races and creeds who will be a new and unsettling force for our time.

About the Author

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church, the director of the Kairos Center for Rights, Religions, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She has spent the past two decades organizing amongst the poor and dispossessed in the United States. She has led and won major economic and racial justice campaigns across the country, organized hundreds of trainings and bible studies with grassroots leaders, written in major national and international publications and recently published Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor and Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing.