A Revived Poor People’s Campaign Calls for a “Revolution of American Values”

Jessicah Pierre

In 1968, the first brought thousands of Americans together to fight for fair incomes and living standards. As poverty surges in the United States, the campaign is making a comeback.

(Editor’s Note: On May 17, the Unit­ed Way’s ALICE Project released a report that finds, despite record low unem­ploy­ment and stock mar­ket highs, 43 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are strug­gling to pay for basic neces­si­ties — food, rent and child care. In the Unit­ed States today, 66 per­cent of all jobs pay less than $20 per hour and mil­lions of Amer­i­cans have no retire­ment plan and no sav­ings.)

Thou­sands of civ­il rights advo­cates, low-wage work­ers, and reli­gious lead­ers kicked off mas­sive protests on May 14, launch­ing a 40-day cam­paign across the nation in an effort to revive Mar­tin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

The Poor People’s Cam­paign brings togeth­er poor and mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple from all back­grounds, places, and reli­gions to stand up for their lives and rights by call­ing for a rev­o­lu­tion of Amer­i­can val­ues.” They’re tak­ing aim at the evils of sys­temic racism, pover­ty, the war econ­o­my and eco­log­i­cal devastation.

The first Poor People’s Cam­paign in 1968 brought thou­sands of Amer­i­cans of all races togeth­er to fight for fair incomes and liv­ing stan­dards. After King was mur­dered that same year, the move­ment slowed down. But with the fights for racial and eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty as inter­twined now as they were 50 years ago, orga­niz­ers believe that the movement’s vision for Amer­i­ca couldn’t come at a bet­ter time.

The Poor People’s cam­paign calls not only for a rad­i­cal redis­tri­b­u­tion of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic pow­er, but for a deep moral analy­sis of the nation­al con­scious­ness around pover­ty and racism.

This analy­sis calls out the com­mon myths that per­pet­u­ate sys­temic inequal­i­ty, includ­ing the dan­ger­ous belief that pover­ty is the fault of the poor. Those with more than ample wealth, the nar­ra­tive goes, ful­ly mer­it what they have. And oth­ers mer­it less.

My col­league Chuck Collins describes this nar­ra­tive as the myth of deserved­ness.” In his book Born on Third Base, Collins defines that myth as the belief that peo­ple are poor because they don’t try as hard, have made mis­takes, or lack wit and wis­dom.” And the rich, the same sto­ry goes, have worked hard­er, smarter, or more creatively.”

This deserved­ness” nar­ra­tive large­ly ignores the dis­crim­i­na­tion and oth­er bar­ri­ers that have blocked eco­nom­ic progress for poor peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or, or the pub­lic poli­cies that have kept these bar­ri­ers intact — things like hous­ing and employ­ment dis­crim­i­na­tion, mass incar­cer­a­tion, and tax poli­cies that favor the wealthy over poor peo­ple of all colors.

A report released this year by the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies, The Souls of Poor Folks, exam­ines how what Dr. King called the Triplets of Evil” — sys­temic racism, pover­ty, and the war econ­o­my and mil­i­tarism — as well as the inter­re­lat­ed prob­lem of eco­log­i­cal dev­as­ta­tion, have deep­ened since 1968 because of struc­tur­al and sys­temic rea­sons, rather than indi­vid­ual failures.

The report points out that since 1968, the top one percent’s share of nation­al income has near­ly dou­bled, while the offi­cial pover­ty rate for all U.S. fam­i­lies has mere­ly inched up and down. The 400 wealth­i­est Amer­i­cans now own more wealth than the bot­tom 64 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion (or 204 mil­lion people).

As the gov­ern­ment increas­ing­ly caters to the inter­ests of the few rich and pow­er­ful rather than being account­able to the poor and mar­gin­al­ized major­i­ty, the Poor People’s Cam­paign reminds us of the ongo­ing and emerg­ing move­ments that are com­pelling a change in our nation­al priorities.

Dur­ing a time where Amer­i­ca could not be more polit­i­cal­ly and eco­nom­i­cal­ly polar­ized, it’s time to change the moral nar­ra­tive in this coun­try by com­ing togeth­er under moral clar­i­ty. We must shift the nation­al con­ver­sa­tion from right ver­sus left” to right ver­sus wrong.”

(The Moral Rev­o­lu­tion Amer­i­ca Needs” was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on Inequal​i​ty​.org and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times under a Cre­ative Com­mons 3.0 license. The Poor Peo­ples Cam­paign is cur­rent­ly orga­niz­ing events in over 30 states. To learn more, please click here.)

Jes­sic­ah Pierre is a pub­lic rela­tions pro­fes­sion­al, polit­i­cal blog­ger, and social entre­pre­neur born and raised in Boston, Mass. She grad­u­at­ed from UMass Amherst in 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in Polit­i­cal Science.
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