A new Poor People’s Campaign

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Fifty years ago in January 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference launched the Poor People’s Campaign to protest the stubborn persistence of poverty in the midst of prosperity. They called for an enduring campaign of mass protest and civil disobedience in Washington D.C. by a multi-racial “nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.”

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had declared “a war on poverty” with programs such as Head Start, a domestic Peace Corps called Vista, and a Job Corps for disadvantaged youth. Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps would be created. In the decade following the introduction of the war on poverty, U.S. poverty rates dropped to their lowest level since comprehensive records were started — from 17.3 percent in 1964 to 11.1 percent in 1973. Imagine what could have been accomplished if Johnson had focused on eradicating poverty rather than on bombing Vietnam to smithereens?

Many people imagined a better society in 1968 and some talked vaguely of “revolution.” King asked socialist author Michael Harrington to draw up a Poor People’s Manifesto to advocate for radical solutions such as a $30 billion annual appropriation for a real war on poverty, full employment and guaranteed income legislation (a guaranteed annual wage) and construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year until the slums were eliminated.

But then in April, King was assassinated and many cities burned. There would be a number of huge shocks, particularly for those who yearned for a progressive future — Robert Kennedy, a presidential candidate who was supportive of King’s campaign, was killed. This was followed by a divisive and disastrous Democratic Party convention and the election of Richard Nixon. This was a counter-revolution.

The planned encampment of the Poor People’s Campaign called “Resurrection City” would be built in May between the Washington and Lincoln Monuments. About 3,000 poor people of all races lived there for six weeks. Some 50,000 people gathered in a mass march and rally in June in solidarity with the campaign and to support a robust “economic bill of rights.” Six days later, most of the residents were arrested during civil disobedience on the Capitol grounds.

This year, a new “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival” has been launched by Rev. William Barber II in more than 30 states across the nation. A large coalition of labor, religious, civil rights, environmental and peace organizations is alerting fellow Americans to some uncomfortable truths:

There are fewer voting rights in 2018 than there were 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed.

Sixty percent more Americans are living below the official poverty line today than in 1968. That’s 41 million more people. Wages for the bottom 80 percent of workers have remained basically stagnant since the 1970s and today there are 64 million people working for less than $15 an hour.

The U.S. imprisons and detains more people, particularly poor people, than any nation in the world.

Nearly 12 percent of U.S. households face unaffordable water bills.

Fifty-three cents of every federal discretionary dollar goes to military spending, and only 15 cents is spent on anti-poverty programs.

This month, Phillip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, released a devastating report on the U.S. His report notes: “The United States already leads the developed world in income and wealth inequality, and it is now moving full steam ahead to make itself even more unequal. High child and youth poverty rates perpetuate the intergenerational transmission of poverty very effectively, and ensure that the American dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion.”

Alston says Trump is moving the nation toward a “dramatic change of direction” that afflicts the most vulnerable and pampers the most comfortable:

“The $1.5 trillion in tax cuts in December 2017 overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy and worsened inequality. The consequences of neglecting poverty and promoting inequality are clear. The policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.”

Alston warned that Trump’s cruel assault “bodes ill for society as a whole. The proposed slashing of social protection benefits will affect the middle classes every bit as much as the poor.” The Federal Reserve recently reported that four out of 10 Americans are so hard up they couldn’t cover an emergency expense of $400 without borrowing money or selling some of their possessions.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz has said he’s glad that international observers like Alston are talking about Trump’s impact: “This administration inherited a bad situation with inequality in the U.S. and is now fanning the flames and worsening the situation. What is so disturbing is that Trump, rather than taking measures to ameliorate the problem, is taking measures to aggravate it.”

In 1968, King talked about a need for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” He explicitly spoke about democratic socialism in private conversation and sometimes to activist audiences.

This was during the Cold War so he was cautious. Today Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician and folks are asking more fundamental questions about our society than they did 50 years ago.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.