A Poor People’s Campaign Activist Reports on Its Reality in Greensboro North Carolina
A Greensboro Social Justice Activist on the Poor People’s Campaign
We are two weeks into a six-week season launch of moral resistance and revival when my friend and mentor of nearly fifty years, Reverend Nelson Johnson, brings those assembled up to date. His words thrill me when he says that the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival “has the greatest potential of any grassroots movement in the nation to shift the moral narrative and transform our country.”
Launched on May 14th, under the leadership of Co-Chairs Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharris, the first phase of the Poor People’s Campaign concludes on June 23, 2018, when a mass mobilization will bring thousands of people from states around the country to the US Capitol in Washington, DC. They will come as part of a movement that demands a moral awakening for our country. Many more, undoubtedly, will join the current foot soldiers of this righteous campaign.
To those justice-loving folks assembled in Greensboro, NC, and already feeling the angst of our troubled times, an awareness of the dangerous and critical point we have reached was perhaps the reason they became affiliated with the two-year old local organization, Democracy Greensboro, in the first place. Reverend Johnson himself is one of the group’s several esteemed leaders.
With a couple of hundred Greensboro residents from diverse communities constituting its active core and ardent supporters, the organization is building a city-wide movement based on its much-circulated community platform. Its most energetic members hold municipal government accountable to “govern on behalf of all citizens and residents of Greensboro with greater transparency and honesty.” A veritable gadfly to all elected officials, even those reputedly progressive, the group is demanding from local government that it promote policies that accord with principles of economic, social, environmental, and criminal and civil justice.
Recent struggles in which Democracy Greensboro received media attention and generated animated public discourse include:
Challenging police harassment and arrest of several Black men merely for being in downtown Greensboro in the evening;
Supporting city sanitation workers and other city employees in obtaining a living wage by advocating for the workers, with the result that the city council has finally just approved a budget that raises many city workers’ wages to $15.50 per hour;
Sending the City Manager, who lied under oath, into early retirement when the city, without public scrutiny, committed $60 million dollars of public funds to private real estate developers for two unneeded downtown parking garages, while ignoring the dire needs of the poor for housing, health care, food, jobs and transportation; and
Bringing together some of the city’s homeless population into a union to fight unconstitutional and immoral local panhandling and loitering ordinances that criminalize those unable to afford housing.
The Democracy Greensboro member leading our local homeless project was once homeless himself. The homeless and their advocates from Greensboro and many other cities and states will be present on June 23rd at the nation’s capital in DC. The ever-increasing number of homeless people is a national tragedy. It is national precisely because it is local and is encountered nearly everywhere one turns in the U.S. Recent surveys show that on any given night well over half a million people are lacking shelter and sleep in the streets, in tents, in vehicles or other uninhabitable places.
A rising trend among those politically active and seeking a fundamental transformation of society toward justice and equality is to focus organizing efforts at the local and state levels rather than starting by tangling with the behemoth of federal bureaucracy. Most importantly, the grassroots is where social change is happening, percolating up. We need to connect our local work to national movements, especially the Poor People’s Campaign. As we persevere in our struggles for local power, we will come to appreciate better the effectiveness and potential decisiveness of battles waged in the streets, at city councils and in the legislative chambers of state capitals, especially by those most impacted by today’s immoral and insane public policies.
In North Carolina, an hour’s drive east from Greensboro, sister city Durham has organized Durham For All and elected a progressive city council. Further south, a dynamic experiment in social transformation is taking place; “Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi,” by Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, is a must-read book for all who are serious about organizing for transformative social change. Across the nation, local progressives are joining together as in Richmond, CA, where a grassroots movement and progressive alliance is liberating the city from corporate rule and electing candidates who serve the people’s interests.
With these examples in mind, let us try a thought experiment: Imagine many streamlets of ordinary folks, in state after state, refusing to accept a dangerous, undemocratic, immoral and unjust status quo and instead challenging it. Picture us not allowing ourselves to be divided but rather pulling together in a unified fashion. Imagine people of all races, creeds and conditions and those most impacted by our society’s systemic injustices joining together–many streamlets of people yearning for freedom, equality and dignity, fusing and swelling to become a mighty river. Visualize our unity of principles, values and strategies. What walls could we not scale? What obstacles could we not overcome? The best part of this thought experiment is that it is not merely a thought experiment: it is happening now, a grounded, growing movement so well envisioned and organized that it is doing just about everything right to be victorious. We are talking about the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival!
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. laid the groundwork in 1967 and 1968 for a Poor People’s Campaign to challenge racism, poverty, militarism, and our national morality. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 before he could lead others in completing this non-violent social revolution.
Now under the leadership of the Rev. William Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharris, and with the addition of an impressive empirical study by the Institute for Policy Studies (that you may download here and) that brings us toward an honest confrontation with our own history, the blood-stained banner of the original Poor People’s Campaign has been expanded and is carried forward into the present moment.
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival contains both audit and orders: it is the right-on-time audit of the five decades since King’s death as well as desperately needed marching orders, for perhaps decades to come, for a great grassroots movement. In the 2018 version of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), to King’s evil triplet of racism, poverty and war, as the major issues affecting us all, is added ecological devastation. The goal of changing the national narrative is consonant with King’s vision of a moral overhaul of our national priorities.
It is true that “our victories in the timeless cause of love and democracy have always required the devotion of thousands of ordinary people, local communities, grassroots groups, prophetic churches, and organizing traditions,” and that “neither the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 nor our cause of love, mercy and justice today rolled forward on the gifts of a great leader.” (“The Souls of Poor Folk,” (p. 3) Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine the enormous progress made by the current movement without the intelligence, commitment and vision of the Reverend Doctor William J. Barber II.
Barber’s family background, his character, his career and the challenges he has faced are described sympathetically in a recent article in The New Yorker. The magazine’s staff writer, Jelani Cobb, traces the development of Rev. Barber’s ideas from his leadership of the North Carolina NAACP, to the organization of the People’s Assemblies in 2007, on through the Forward Together Not One Step Back Moral Monday Movement from 2013 to 2016, and on to the establishment of Repairers of the Breach, until today’s Poor People’s Campaign and Barber’s collaboration with Reverend Liz Theoharris, who co-chairs the campaign with him and is Co-Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice.
Shortly after he was elected president of the State Conference of the NAACP in 2006, Barber built a state-wide coalition of social justice organizations that gathered on Jones Street in Raleigh as the North Carolina General Assembly met. The rallies and People’s Assemblies were known as Historic Thousands on Jones Street, or HKonJ, and they were meant to influence legislation on fourteen key issues, including health care, education and teachers’ wages, criminal justice, immigrant rights, and laws restricting or suppressing the right to vote. On bitter cold February days and in the sweltering heat of July, thousands of people from all over the state were there, coming from the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina and the sandy shores in the eastern part of the state and everywhere in between. They descended from chartered buses, marched, chanted, sang, listened to speeches, filed en masse into the legislative building, (the “People’s House”), got arrested by the hundreds for civil disobedience and supported those arrested.
I was there on many of those occasions and kept coming back during the later Forward Together Moral Monday period. If you listened to the scores of inspiring speakers always on hand you would know what was going on in the state; mostly it was not a pretty picture. Laborers, clergy people, the common folk and people with name recognition, students, immigrants, doctors and health care workers, people of all hues and persuasions shared stories about struggling to earn a living wage and raise a family in these days and about discrimination, injustices and persecution they suffered personally. They affirmed their hopes for a better future and announced the determined actions they were taking to unite with others in order to make that better future happen. I always left buoyed up and deeply grateful to be among the joyous resurgence of democracy at the grassroots and the robust expression of political will embodied at HJonK and Moral Monday rallies. I remembered my unquestioning belief in democracy as a child, and my trust in the goodness of my country and of humanity in general. If I became a rebel it was because, as an adult, the sham of democracy and justice in the United States was irrefutably exposed to me, and there is no unknowing once you know, only the choice of action or inaction.
Central to the appeal and the legitimacy of the Poor People’s Campaign is that it puts the least, the lowest and the last of us first. In driving the issue of poverty into public discourse, as did Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he questioned why and how the wealthiest nation in the world leaves many millions of people in privation, the PPC rebuts the myths that poverty is the fault of the poor and that our nation does not have sufficient resources for all to survive and thrive. The greatest strength of the PPC movement is that it gives a voice to all, particularly amplifying the voices of the poorest and those most impacted, abused, and exploited by immoral social structures and institutions.
This, indeed, is the starting point for any claimant to the title of greatest social movement. The PPC is inclusive: those from society’s upper ranks may participate and contribute, as some do, adding their gifts to its power. However, the goal of a radical transformation of a society that has turned its values upside down absolutely requires liberation from below. As Howard Zinn notes, commenting on the first reconstruction in American history after the Civil War (“People’s History of the United States,” HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, pp. 171-172), “Liberation from the top would go only so far as the interests of the dominant groups permitted….While the ending of slavery led to a reconstruction of national politics and economics, it was not a radical reconstruction, but a safe one—in fact, a profitable one.”
It is worth contemplating the findings of present day research on the widening of the wealth gap and the distribution of wealth. According to “The Souls of Poor Folk,” (p. 9), “The 400 wealthiest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom 64 per cent of the U.S. population (or 204 million people).” That means that just one of those super-wealthy Americans has the combined wealth of over half a million people: It means that millions of people are wanting for food, shelter, health care, education or other life essentials and suffering the agonies of simply living day-to-day in a society in which everything costs increasingly more money, including being born, dying and drinking clean water. Is this the economic profile of a sustainable society? The question is answered in the negative the instant you ask it.
Another way to think about poverty is that in the past half century we have become a country of poor people becoming poorer by the minute. It is shocking that close to half the entire U.S. population (43.5 per cent) is poor or low income, as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), where low income is defined as making less than twice the poverty income. For instance, “over the past 30 years, rents have gone up faster than income in nearly every urban area in the country. In 2016, there was no state or county in the nation where an individual earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour could afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rent.” (pp. 9-10). The appalling reality is that if you work full time for the federally legislated minimum wage most likely you cannot afford a place to live, or have enough money to raise a family, and God forbid that anyone gets sick!
Poverty in the United States of America is nothing less than a shameful national scandal, as is the set of diversionary tactics fostered by the elite one per cent that has thus far kept us from transforming this awful system. One of my favorite quotations of all time, attributed to Dorothy Day, goes “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” Let us notice the important difference between the corrupt system and our accepting the corrupt system, for now we are seeing a mass movement that is teaching and training people not to accept this filthy, rotten system.
Systemic Racism is a main category of social concern around which the PPC organizes. However, Poverty and Systemic Racism cannot be understood, much less addressed, separately. They intersect and have been intertwined in our country’s history from the beginning. Since the second reconstruction in the Civil Rights era of the sixties, during which we fought for and won the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court in 2013 cleared the way for many states to adopt voter suppression laws and create policies that further undermine or undo the democratic process for all, particularly for people of color.
“The Souls of Poor Folk” (p. states that “people of color account for 66 per cent of people in prison, while they make up only about 39 per cent of the total population. And the number of citizens disenfranchised due to felony convictions has tripled, from 2 million in 1968 to 6.1 million in 2016, including one in thirteen Black adults.” Thus, mass incarceration, symptomatic of our nation’s Systemic Racism, leads to the disenfranchisement of many Black voters and moves us backward in the historical continuum toward Jim Crow days.
We have been inching our way to underscoring intersectionality, a most valuable concept in the “The Souls of Poor Folk” report’s toolbox and in the Poor People’s Campaign itself. The linkage between the major categories of social ills is not a mere abstraction, but an objective reality that discloses the essence of our society, its heart, or rather its heartlessness. One social ill exacerbates another (as we’ve already pointed out with racism, poverty, the housing crisis, incarceration and limiting of voting rights) so that a realistic picture must truly consider all intersectionalities. Real people live and die in these intersectionalities.
The War Economy, Militarism and the proliferation of gun violence in the U.S. form another of the gross social ills that affect us all. Not everyone has yet realized that to wage war abroad a country must at the same time wage war at home, against its own citizens. “Since Vietnam, the United States has waged an ongoing war against diffuse enemies, siphoning massive resources away from social needs.” (“The Souls of Poor Folk,” pp. 10-11) Our current military budget is $668 billion compared to the $190 billion that is set aside for education, jobs, housing, other basic services and rebuilding infrastructure. The military receives 53 cents of every dollar of federal discretionary spending, while 15 cents of that dollar is spent on anti-poverty programs.
These immoral priories are a huge part of the answer to how we got to be a nation of poor people becoming poorer all the time. Part of the saga of the devaluation of life is the contrast in pay for those waging war: “Army privates in combat earned less than $30,000 in 2016.” That same year, “the CEOs of the top five military contractors earned on average $19.2 million—more than 90 times the $214,000 earned by a U.S. military general with 20 years of experience, including housing allowances and extra combat pay and approximately 640 times the amount earned by Army privates in combat.” (“The Souls of Poor Folk,” p. 11)
Times have certainly changed: The role of military contractors in fighting wars has become more important than that of soldiers, and wars kill more civilians than enemy combatants. The war economy has little to do with protecting Americans or defending us from enemies: it is big business in which a handful of people are responsible for, and profit from, raging injustices, unspeakable horrors and countless gratuitous deaths and injuries. Intersecting with the war economy is a struggling population of youth lured into the poverty draft. And the expenditures on war come home to roost in militarized police departments all over the country that routinely use weapons of war in criminalizing the poor for their poverty.
Ecological Devastation, the fourth content area we touch on here, is a multiplier of other injustices. The few restraints on fossil fuel, chemical and other industries poisoning our air, water and land, are vanishing rapidly under the present regime in Washington. We can expect the environmental death toll to rise exponentially as a result of global warming and climate change. Everyone will be impacted but, again, the worst impacts are likely to fall most heavily on the poor and people of color.
Human causes of natural disasters and human responses to them are such that it would be disingenuous to dismiss our recent hurricanes and super-storms as purely “acts of God.” For example, the U.S. Congress, for which Puerto Ricans do not vote and in which they are not represented, made decisions over many years to delay dealing with the poor state of the island’s infrastructure; instead Congress promoted austerity measures for Puerto Ricans and prioritized debt payments to Wall Street. Puerto Ricans were languishing in poverty when Hurricane Maria hit. While the official death toll from Maria had been stated as 64, a recent Harvard study showed that at least 4,645 people died, and possibly more, in just the three month period after the hurricane. Democracy Now devoted air time to a rich discussion among author Naomi Klein and two leading Puerto Rican environmentalists who make it clear that human agency and immoral political and economic priorities are the true underlying causes accounting for thousands of deaths and the massive destruction and suffering in Puerto Rico.
The intersectionality between climate change and physical health is also addressed by the Rev. Dr. Damaris D. Whittaker, from New York City. He writes:
My family in Puerto Rico still lacks electricity after more than seven months. My aunt, who is diabetic, has been forced to ration her insulin and is unable to refrigerate her medication…
Meanwhile, on the mainland, tens of millions of poor people lack proper health insurance—a number that is increasing under the current administration. An opioid epidemic has swept the nation. And dirty energy sources like fracking and offshore drilling are causing health risks, ecological devastation and climate change.
These are the issues I’m confronting as part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Shifting our moral narrative and building a moral fusion movement are two central notions in the Poor People’s Campaign. But, in light of the numbing threats that we face from global warming, nuclear war, or a total social and economic collapse of society—any one of which would lead to a more rapid advance of the species extinction that is already underway on planet earth and that includes homo sapiens if we keep doing what we have been doing—is it not too pathetic or too late to talk about why we must shift the moral narrative or why we need a moral fusion movement? Or are these the only things that can possibly save us?
What if we allow humility and hope to guide our actions? Humility because, I believe, none of us knows for certain whether or not we have passed the tipping point in the damage we have done to our delicately-balanced, finitely-resourced planet. A tipping point means that there is no going back and repairing the mess—nature wins; humans lose. The metaphor of a tipping point is just that, a metaphor, and is somewhat vague, whether applied to nature or to human affairs and behaviors. Yet much of what we know we express through the use of metaphor and analogy. The limits of our knowledge and our ways of knowing should make us humble.
On the subject of hope, I have another favorite quotation I see as germane to what the PPC is trying to achieve. The opening quotation to “Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet,” by Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, is a saying attributed to Lu Hsun, in 1921:
Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist.
It is just like the roads across the earth.
For actually there were no roads to begin with,
but when many people pass one way a road is made.
The unity and solidarity of the ongoing poor people’s movement consists in our passing together along a road, a road of our own making. When, on June 4th, about 400 Kentuckians, led by Rev. William Barber, were denied entrance to the state legislative building, the crowd remained disciplined and united. They might have easily pushed through the door and overwhelmed the guards with their numbers. But this movement has a commitment to non-violence and to direct action. When they could not get in, the people retreated and Rev. Barber exposed the situation for what it is–the government is afraid of the power of the people. Barber announced that the violation of constitutional law with which people had been met would be challenged in court and he kept everyone together, planning to return the following week. He even commented that what the Kentucky state legislature was doing by denying them entrance was opening up every state legislature in the country to the people. That is a very shrewd assessment, and of course it is not what those legislators were intending to do.
If only we stand together we will prevail. That is the message. Had they been allowed entrance to the building to make their case that a work requirement for Medicaid is wrong, the people would have prevailed. However, by being denied entrance and still remaining united and moving forward together, the people prevailed anyway. This is the winning strategy–good yesterday, good today and good tomorrow. We cannot allow ourselves to be divided or separated. It is we who must shift the narrative through our moral actions. We need to focus on “how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, LGBTQ folks, workers, immigrants, the disabled and the sick; to how we institutionalize equality and equal representation under the law; and how we realize the desire for peace, love and harmony within and among nations.” (“The Souls of Poor Folk,” p. 17)
We have the power to write our own history. One of the greatest American historians, John Hope Franklin, who happened to be Black and whose writings tell America’s history and not merely the history of Black Americans, understood what it would take to transform this nation and unleash its true democratic promise. What we need to do as a nation and as individual members of society “is to confront our past and see it for what it is. It is a past is filled with some of the ugliest possible examples of racial brutality and degradation in human history. We need to recognize it for what it was and is and not explain it away, excuse it, or justify it. Having done that, we should then make a good-faith effort to turn our history around.” In the same vein, when Dr. Martin Luther King conceived the Poor People’s Campaign 50 years ago, he recognized that we had to turn to our past in order to understand our present, and only then could we move forward to build a better future.
Tell it like it was and tell it like it is might be dual mottos for the new moral narrative. The strategies, tactics and organizing principles of the Campaign support its ends: There is:
- a non-negotiable commitment to non-violence, direct action and civil disobedience when needed;
- simultaneity of some 30 or 40 state-based actions involving hundreds of organizations;
- an insistence on a non-partisan movement that is organized around moral values and not party allegiances;
- bearing witness together, story-telling and cultural events that are vital to people’s desire to bond with others in cooperative and loving ways;
- a spiritual basis to this movement but no bias in favor of one or another religious tradition, instead welcoming atheists, agnostics, and people of all faiths or no faith;
- patriotism in the best sense, upholding the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution by fulfilling the spirit of these historic documents instead of ignoring or subverting that spirit;
- empirical research into the historical and contemporary facts so that we may know and be bearers of truth; and
- a guiding, triumphant vision of organizing a fusion movement that brings together people from all walks of life to do what is morally right.
These are beautiful credentials and a movement recipe for success. As “The Souls of Poor Folk” sums it up on p. 18, “What began with an outcry in North Carolina became a sustained movement for political change through moral fusion organizing, led by poor and impacted people.”
There are indeed victories and successes to show for the past dozen years. Here are a few examples. When a school board in Wake County took action geared to resegregating schools, Barber, then leader of the state conference of the NAACP, organized protests and mobilized voters with the result that in the following year all the board members who tried to resegregate the schools were voted out.
In North Carolina’s struggle against voter suppression laws that were passed by Republicans who controlled both houses of the legislature for the first time in over a century, Barber and others prevailed in legal challenges. In 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the state’s voter-I.D. law, stating that it targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.” The court also has declared the state’s redistricting map unconstitutional. It remains, however, as I understand it, to set a time limit for changing the gerrymandered districts so that they are in legal compliance with the court’s decision.
After Pat McCrory was elected governor in 2012, Barber’s leadership of Moral Monday protests spotlighted McCrory’s hurtful political stands, such as his refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which left 20 percent of the state’s residents lacking health insurance, and his signing a law that prevented transgender individuals from using a bathroom in accordance with their gender identity. McCrory’s defeat in 2016 and the election of Democratic governor Roy Cooper, must surely be due, at least in part, to the “people power” of the Moral Monday Forward Together Movement and the courage, commitment and compassion of thousands of people who attended those events, learned from them, spoke out, and got arrested. McCrory’s loss at the polls was a movement victory and not a partisan one, for the Democratic governor is being held to the same standards as his Republican predecessor.
Rev. Barber has gone into predominantly white and rural regions of the state, even places known to be friendly to the Ku Klux Klan, and enjoyed immense popularity while gaining new recruits to the movement of moral resistance and moral revival. That too certainly counts as success. The movement does not pit the political right against the political left, but brings together all those who know right from wrong and want to do right. That is one of its greatest strengths.
Talking on the phone to Tikkun editor Rabbi Michael Lerner and Network of Spiritual Progressive director Cat Zavis about a week before the Poor People’s Campaign’s launch, Barber told them, “We really believe we have to work at saving the soul and the heart of this nation and that means going to places where we wouldn’t automatically go.” He continued,
When I was first invited to Mitchell County that was 89% Republican, 99% white, my answer was “Hell no, I’m not going” because they also have one of the largest militia groups up there. But then, some of the people in our movement said, “Wait a minute, Reverend Barber. If this is a moral movement, not a Democratic movement, not a Progressive or Liberal movement, but a moral movement, and they ask you to come, you have to go.” When we got there, we found out they had been organizing clandestine. They had come to our mass gatherings in Raleigh to see if we were being true— that this wasn’t just about Democrats, but it was truly about moral issues. And these were people that were deeply “conservative Evangelical.” You know, I’m an Evangelical as well by my upbringing.
And do you know, when we left there at night Rabbi, the Republican chair stood up and said, “I have just resigned. In this county, as a Republican chair, because I’m not a Tea Party extremist, I’m a Lincoln Roosevelt Eisenhower Republican.” They formed a branch of the NAACP in that county – a county where we had never even thought about it. It’s predominantly white, and they told us, “We’re going to always hold on to some of our deep conservative light, but we have seen in a different light.” Lastly, what we’re going to do is we’re going to engage in massive voter mobilization, massive training and power building from the bottom up…
“It is wonderful what you are doing,” Rabbi Lerner told Rev. Barber. “We would like to be part of the conversation. And we will certainly be with you in the streets! The Hebrew word ‘tikkun’ means ‘healing, repair and transformation’ and central to that transformation at this historical moment is the struggle against poverty, racism, ecological devastation, militarism, and restoring a healthy commitment to a moral narrative that are the elements you have identified as the major concerns of the Poor People’s Campaign. So of course we are with you!”
“I love the New Bottom Line argument and we’ll look at that and how to make it part of our movement,” Rev. Barber said to them, referring to one of Tikkun’s and the Network of Spiritual Progressives’ major campaigns of many years, to which Cat Zavis replies, “The New Bottom Line is a call [to] the moral revival to which you’re speaking. It is morally right to have a world based on love and justice, not a world based on money and power. And it dovetails beautifully with the way you’re framing this as a moral issue, not a right-left issue.”
I see few weaknesses and a great many strengths in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. When I asked Rev. Nelson Johnson about weaknesses in the campaign, he mentioned the need to expand the ranks by recruiting more Blacks and people of color and said that special training sessions would be added in Greensboro to accommodate a more diverse group of participants.
While I would not call it a weakness of the PPC, I do think that incorporating the work that has been done around a New Bottom Line would greatly strengthen the entire poor people’s movement and its moral narrative; the failure to do so could become a missed opportunity. The concept of money and monetary profit as the only bottom line to which we need to pay attention is so ingrained in most people’s thinking that many can hardly believe there is any alternative path to follow and they are blind to values other than those that can be measured by money and monetary profit.
In the phone conversation with Rev. Barber, Rabbi Lerner compared the old and new bottom line:
The old bottom line says that a person is valuable or an institution is productive, efficient, and rational to the extent that it maximizes money and power. We say that the New Bottom Line should say that institutions, social practices, our corporations, our government policies, our healthcare system, our legal system are efficient, rational, and productive to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, social and economic justice, environmental sanity, and enhance our capacity to respond to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred and enhance our capacity to respond to the universe, not by looking at the earth or other places in terms of what we can get from it, but rather respond to the universe with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of creation.
Among intellectuals and opinion-makers with a concern about the future, the attitudes of fatalism and cynicism often crop up. Neither of these attitudes is helpful. Knowing one of the authors, I read “Pardon the Disruption: The Future You Never Saw Coming” a few years ago, which extrapolates the future as one of robots taking over while we stand by passively allowing whatever will be to be. The attitude is one of fatalism and we are helpless to resist and to build a human-friendly, life-friendly society instead of merely submitting to the robot-friendly future that is in the cards for us. To me, this is an almost sacrilegious view that denies a God of possibility and our own human nature.
Cynicism is abundant in our culture in various manifestations and degrees. I even felt it in reading “The Coming Collapse,” by Chris Hedges, a brilliant political analyst, in an article in truthdig.com. Hedges descriptions of where the greed of capitalists has led us, the illusions people still have, and the signs of impending collapse and doom are compelling, and he seems to be telling us, don’t bother; it’s a hopeless cause. Things are already too stacked against us. At least, I felt those emotional overtones throughout his article. But if Hedges is a cynic, there are far worse ones, for along with a host of chilling, because true, observations he has articulated what I have believed for years is a winning approach to overcome the odds that face us as we strive for a fundamental transformation of our society.
Hedges writes that “We must invest our energy in building parallel, popular institutions to protect ourselves and to pit power against power. These parallel institutions, including unions, community development organizations, local currencies, alternative political parties and food cooperatives, will have to be constructed town by town.” The building of parallel institutions in which all participate to provide for the basic needs of all in a dignified and non-discriminating way is, I believe, the substance of the third reconstruction. In the critical, ongoing and future work that the Poor People’s Campaign will be equipped to undertake, there will be no shortage of jobs or question of inadequate compensation. We will be in position to make equitable arrangements conducive to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As the process matures, it will draw away the authority and power to dominate from oppressors and exploiters on whom we now too often depend because they are the only game in town.
Fatalism and cynicism, both non-starter attitudes, are completely absent from the Poor People’s Campaign, and I see this as a relevant consideration for understanding the potential and popularity of the movement. Certainly, we act within the limits of our flawed humanness, in accordance with our individual traits and–like it or not–we are part of the communities, traditions and institutions we have inherited from previous generations. Dare we hope to bequeath a better world to our children and to generations to come? How will we do that? Why are we here? Most simply and accurately said in the Broadway show, “The Wiz,” of 1975, we are here to help each other “ease on down the road.” Not a bad characterization of the How and the Why of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Signe Waller Foxworth, Ph D
June 11, 2018