Truths of Poverty: The Poor People’s Campaign

The Preamble of the United States Constitution (you can say it along with me, if you like):

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This morning I want to share one of the most profound and uplifting and tragic “We the People” stories in American history.

It is a political story. It is a deeply theological, ethical story.

I am talking about the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. A campaign that survived Dr. King’s assassination just four months into the swing of it. A campaign mainly of the poor for the poor, in which people of all ethnicities and races streamed into Washington D.C. in the form of caravans, to secure the Blessings of Liberty for all and not just for the rich.

Poor People's Campaign 1

These thousands of people, on May 21st, set up a huge shantytown right there on the National Mall, under the watchful eyes of Lincoln sitting in his Memorial. The shantytown was called Resurrection City; it was given its own zip code (20013); and it was a staging ground for multiple daily demonstrations at federal agencies and the U.S. Capitol for over a month, addressing a whole host of issues, like eradicating police brutality, establishing living wages, ending discrimination, addressing hunger and malnutrition, assistance for the poor, affordable health care that works for all, affordable housing, honoring Native American treaty rights, honoring migrants seeking to become part of America, and on and on.

Weeks into this, between 50,000 and 100,000 others from across these United States joined the residents of Resurrection City for a Solidarity Day rally on June 19. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s closest lieutenant who went on to lead the Poor People’s Campaign in his immense absence, spoke. Coretta Scott King spoke. Eugene McCarthy spoke. All sorts of folks spoke. But the energy didn’t match the 1963 March on Washington. People had been complaining about that all along. The 1963 event had been organized and clean-cut. The campaign of 1969, however, seemed messy and uncouth.

The end was not a bang but a whimper. Life in the camp had been chaotic, all throughout. But the day after the big rally, police fired several canisters of tear gas into the City; they said they’d been provoked. Reports of escaped mental hospital patients who were vandalizing things emerged. It was a field day for a Press that was different than it had been in the early years of Civil Rights, when they were more focused on the issues and more respectful. In this latter part of the Civil Rights movement, the Press had become more cynical; they had become more interested in spectacle and in evidence of chaos and confusion. And the story they told on June 3rd, the day after the permit for Resurrection City expired, was about how over one thousand police officers showed up to clear the camp of its remaining 500 citizens. How police ultimately arrested 288 of the demonstrators, including the Rev. Ralph Abernathy.

But there is so much more to this “We the People” story to know, this story of “securing the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” and we’re diving in deep this morning.

We’re diving in deep to understand, in particular, why it is so important that faith leaders like the Rev. Dr. William Barber II and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis are feeling called to revive and recreate the most inspiring parts of the Poor People’s Campaign for today.

Dr Barber

And maybe we ourselves as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta can be a part of reviving and recreating this story, here in Atlanta….

We begin with a quote from author Milan Kundera, who says, “The struggle of humanity against entrenched powers is the struggle of memory over forgetting.”

I would venture to say that the most profound forgetting Americans must struggle to overcome is the part of our history that the Preamble to the United States Constitution both obscures and tries to remedy.

The road to the writing of the 1787 Preamble was a long one. It started 250 years earlier, on a different continent, in the 1500s; it started with upper class men of England who had never once seen or stepped foot on American soil, but they smelled an unparalleled wealth creation scheme in the colonization of a mysterious, foreign land.

Hakluyt_edition_of_Thorne's_map_of_1527

250 years before the Preamble that talked about securing the Blessings of Liberty for all was written, the upper class men of England who promoted colonization cherished a very different dream. Nancy Isenberg, in her book entitled White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, lays it out. “British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World.” America would become “one giant workhouse” where the poor people who had been unproductive in England would become productive in America. “Distant American colonies,” she writes, “were presented as a cure. The poor could be purged. In 1622, the famous poet and clergyman John Donne wrote of Virginia in this fashion, describing the new colony as the [British] nation’s spleen and liver, draining the “ill humours of the body . . . to breed good bloud.”

“How,” asks Nancy Isenberg, “does a culture that prizes equality of opportunity explain, or indeed accommodate, its persistently marginalized people?”

The answer is, because the original purpose of America was about the management of poverty and making poverty big business for the wealthy.

Classism is as American as apple pie.

It is rampant even in the hearts of the Founding Fathers whose “We the People” expansive hopes were captured by the words of the Constitution. They rightly understood that values like Justice, Tranquility, general Welfare, and Blessings of Liberty, call us to transform the status quo into something that more closely resembles the Beloved Community; but they were also people of their time, with the blind spots of their time, mired in the evils of their time, mired in the self-contradictions.

As Nancy Isenberg says, “During the revolution, George Washington stated that only ‘the lower class of people should serve as foot soldiers,’ while Thomas Jefferson considered importing German immigrants to the colonies, hoping to improve the work ethic — and the breeding stock — of farmers and laborers. ‘The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other animals,’ the Virginian planter noted, adding, ‘why not in that of man?’”

George Washington was a snob. Thomas Jefferson saw people as things to breed.

Our forefathers and foremothers in England and here on this continent saw America as a great experiment in exploiting the poor for the benefit of the wealthy—despite what the Preamble and all the other “We the People” founding documents of America might say.

That is how we explain a culture that doesn’t do everything it can to eliminate poverty, but instead simply manages it.

You just can’t erase the original purpose of something with a flourish of words. There’s hundreds of years of momentum that are in play, and it will take all we have over many years of work to refocus that momentum towards something better.

And with this, it’s time to join Dr. King in the 1960s.

Dr. King knew exactly what Milan Kundera spoke of when the novelist wrote, “The struggle of humanity against entrenched powers is the struggle of memory over forgetting.”

Dr. King knew.

He knew the history of the fundamentally class-based invention of racism—how it was a divide-and-conquer strategy of wealthy land owners in Colonial America, meant to create self-protection against the possibility of poor whites and poor blacks coming together to overthrow their masters. But that possibility was rendered impossible when poor whites were granted the booby prize of “white skin privilege,” and they got to lord it over people with black skin, and in the end the wealthy status quo was never once touched.

Dr. King knew.

He knew that the white men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America were often unfaithful to the very words they penned. How the words they wrote called for social transformation, but their behaviors enabled only transformation for some and not for all.

Dr. King was not naïve.

But, as the Rev. Dr. William Barber has said, “King understood that what any people puts down on paper can become a basis for public accountability.”

And therefore King himself said, in a sermon delivered at Washington’s National Cathedral just days before his death: We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. We are going to bring those who have known long years of hurt and neglect. We are going to bring those who have come to feel that life is a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs. We are going to bring children and adults and old people, people who have never seen a doctor or a dentist in their lives.

Martin Luther King Jr.

We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.

We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.

That’s Dr. King.

America, be true to your words.

Be true to the huge promissory note that the forefathers signed.

You can be so much better than your original purpose, America.

Just look at what you are doing to your people. Look at the faces. Look at the invisible people, now made visible through the Poor People’s Campaign.

In 1968 they swarmed in to D.C., coming from nine different regions in these United States, organized in the form of caravans. There was the “Eastern Caravan,” the “Appalachia Trail,” the “Southern Caravan,” the “Midwest Caravan,” the “Indian Trail,” the “San Francisco Caravan,” the “Western Caravan,” the “Mule Train,” and the “Freedom Train.

These were the caravans, and guess how President Johnson, Congress, the FBI, the Military, and the Media saw it?

In the same way that too many people today saw the recent Central American migrant caravans: they were seen not in their vulnerable humanity but as an invasion force, as organized criminals, as a creature of left-wing conspiracies.

Dr. King wanted America to see the poor as he saw the poor.

But between seeing and understanding always comes imagination–some story you’re telling yourself that helps you digest what you’re seeing and render it understood.

Mark Twain put it like this: You can’t depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”

In 1968, the imagination of Americans with the power to eliminate poverty was very definitely out of focus.

In part, it had to do with a very real fear of riots and violence. Just the year before, race and poverty-based violence had broken out in Newark and Detroit. Dr. King’s explicitly stated commitment was to nonviolent protest, the sort of protest that channels the anger and makes it a slow-burn force for real good, but his commitment did not comfort those in power.

Another reason for the unfocused imagination is that the non-poor audience of the campaign felt entitled to a campaign that spoke to non-poor sensitivities. In this, I am reminded of a poem by Jon Davis entitled “Preliminary Report from the Committee on Appropriate Postures for the Suffering”:

We who wear clean socks and shoes are tired
of your barefoot complaining, your dusty footprints
on our just-cleaned rugs. Tired, too of your endless ploys—
the feigned amputations, the imaginary children
you huddle with outside the malls, your rags and bottles,
the inconvenient positions you assume. Though we remain
impressed by your emaciation and your hunger … to do anything
more than sigh will require a complex process
of application and review, a process that is currently
in the development stage. Meanwhile, may we suggest
you moderate your public suffering at least
until the Committee on Appropriate Postures for the Suffering
is able to produce guidelines….

The shantytown of the poor, erected there on the National Mall under the gaze of Lincoln, was called Resurrection City but in reality it was a disorganized affair rife with singing and dancing hippies, racial tension and incidents, bullying, and baiting of police officers. The FBI was a part of the problem; it had infiltrated the camp with agents and ensured that there would be chaos. Top all of this with continual rain, so much so that at one point the standing water was five inches deep.

It was a mess.

resurrectioncity

Imagine you are at home in your nice comfortable living room, and the images you are seeing in the newspaper or on TV aren’t of sober, clean-cut civil rights activists or people suffering in clearly unjust ways but rather images of lunacy, scandal, hooliganism, filthiness, confusion. The media served up spectacle to the American public rather than focus on the real issues.

And we know how it ended. More whisper than bang. Yes, nationwide nutrition programs were created. Food stamps, free lunches. That was at least one result.

But beyond that?

Fast forward to now. The imagination of Americans with the power to eliminate poverty is still very definitely out of focus. For example, last year, President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors declared that America’s long-running war on poverty is (and I quote): “largely over and a success.”

Hearing this, Rev. Dr. William Barber, widely considered to be heir to Dr. King’s moral vision and leadership, had this to say:

This is more than just untrue. It is a willful act of violence at a time when there are 140 million poor and low-income people in the richest country in the history of the world. Since 2010, there has been an onslaught of attacks on voting rights in state legislatures and racialized voter suppression and gerrymandering have helped to smuggle state leaders into office who then turn around and pass policies that hurt the poor and marginalized.

More than 40,600,000 Americans subsist below the poverty line; this report additionally shows that there are close to 140 million people dealing with some combination of these crises every day. Nearly half of our population cannot afford a $400 emergency, which presents a structural crisis of national proportion that ties poverty to things like healthcare and housing.

That’s Dr. Barber. How many of you could handle a $400 emergency? One kind of poverty is called “Asset Poverty” and is defined as follows: It exists when a person or household does not have enough wealth assets (in the form of property, investments, or money saved) to survive for three months if necessary. Many folks today may not be impoverished so long as they are employed, but could be thrown immediately into poverty if their pay were to stop.

Is that true of you?

That declaration of President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors is indeed a willful act of violence, an echo of America’s original purpose for being: to be a wealth engine for the rich, at the expense of the poor.

But here’s the thing about democracy. Democracy is not done with its founding documents.

Democracy is not done with the words like “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It does not matter that the people who wrote and signed these words were mired in the evils of their day.

What any people puts down on paper can become a basis for public accountability.

America, be true to your words.

Be true to the huge promissory note that the forefathers signed.

You can be so much better than your original purpose, America.

Just look at what you are doing to your people. Look again at the faces. Look again at the invisible people, elevated to visibility through the renewed Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. Barber and Dr. Liz Theoharis lead today.

Maybe the 1968 version was a disappointment.

But to expect one event to overcome the accumulated momentum of old history—that’s unrealistic.

It’s time to try again, to fulfill the written-down and signed “We the People” promise from 232 years ago.

To get to fulfillment—however long it takes.

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