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Here's how the Poor People's Campaign aims to finish what MLK started

Here's how the Poor People's Campaign aims to finish what MLK started
The Rev. William J. Barber II speaks in Los Angeles in 2014. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

On Monday, thousands of low-wage workers, clergy and activists will gather at the U.S. Capitol and more than 30 statehouses across the country to kick off the Poor People's Campaign, a radical civil disobedience movement that aims to push the issue of poverty to the top of the national political agenda.

Inspired by a 1968 initiative planned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the multiracial coalition will involve 40 days of protests and direct actions to highlight the issues of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism. Organizers are pitching it as one of the largest waves of nonviolent direct action in U.S. history.

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About 41 million Americans live below the official poverty line, the majority of them white. Organizers with the Poor People's Campaign say official measures of poverty are too narrow, and the number of poor and low-income Americans expands to 140 million if food, clothing, housing and utility costs, as well as government assistance programs, are taken into account.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, the 54-year-old pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C, and co-chairman of the Poor People's Campaign, spoke with The Times this week about poverty, race and movement building. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you decide to revive the Poor People's Campaign, half a century after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination?

For too long, we've accepted this kind of moral narrative in America that has blamed poor people for their poverty and has pitted people against each other. We have seen this spread of the lie of scarcity — that we don't have enough.

In the richest nation in the world — that's what America is — we have 140 million people who live in poverty and many of them are working poor. We have 13 million households that can't afford water. We have four million households where children and the family are affected by lead in their water. Study after study tell us that hundreds of thousands of people die in the United States from poverty and low wealth, not because it's their time to die.

We've got to have what we call moral dissent, moral resistance and a moral vision in this moment.

How would you compare the struggles of poor people in America today to those in 1968? How, if at all, are they different?

Fifty years ago we were fighting to come forward. Fifty years later we are fighting retrogression. We have what's called an impoverished democracy that is going backwards rather than forward. And it's not just because [President] Trump is in office.

We've had 23 states since 2010 that have passed voter suppression laws that have impacted millions of black, brown and poor people. But the states passing voter suppression laws also are the same states that are against living wages, the same states that have denied healthcare, the same states that have the worst laws against gay people and immigrant brothers and sisters, particularly Latinos.

So there's this direct connection between the racism of voter suppression and attacks on policies that would help the poor. What we're saying is you can't address racism without addressing systemic poverty. You can't address systemic poverty without addressing ecological devastation and the war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism.

You've talked about how the issue of poverty in America has been racialized. Can you elaborate?

As the Poor People's Campaign was building and then Dr. King got killed, there was a strategy being built by Richard Nixon called the Southern strategy. The goal was to change the model of conversation, so it was no longer about civil rights and moral issues, but to suggest that entitlement programs were "helping" these undeserving black and brown people, to basically say to poor whites that "your problem exists because of these black and brown people getting all these free things."

In fact, the majority of the people who were benefiting from the war on poverty were white. Just like today, the majority of people in this country who are poor are white. The goal was to trick people into voting against their own self-interest. We are finding that when you go to people's community, sit where they are, hear their pain, and explain that to them, a lightbulb comes on.

Still, isn't building a movement to fight poverty across racial lines, in some ways, a tough sell at this moment?

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I think Trump, and [House Speaker Paul D.] Ryan and [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell, actually helped. The extremism and the racism and the Islamophobia and the xenophobia, and the policy attacks on the poor and working poor by the policies of an administration like Trump's, actually assist in building, in some strange way, the movement. People are seeing their commonality.

As we have traveled across this country — 20 states since the election, more than 40 states since 2016 — everywhere we go, people are beginning to see that merely working in our silos and separating these issues are not the most powerful way to move forward. We need to work in silos, but we also have to find ways to show that these are interlocking injustices, which require an intersectional, moral response.

As more and more people are attacked, they are finding out that the same politicians that attack voting rights attack the LGBT community, the same people that attack the LGBT attack public education, the same people that attack public education attack and deny living wages and healthcare and immigrant justice.

So if the same people are cynical enough to be together for an immoral agenda, then those of us who know that there's a better way have to be smart enough and courageous enough to come together to promote a moral agenda.

Before his death, King said the Poor People's Campaign would stay in Washington, D.C., "until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor." Why does your campaign have a 40-day focus? And why is it spread out across states?

In '68 they went to D.C. Fifty years later, we're not doing this as a commemoration. We're doing this because there's been an exacerbation of the problems. We're going to 40 states and the District of Columbia to say that we need a movement across the country.

Much of what happens to hurt poor people happens in state capitols, not in the Congress. Healthcare is blocked in state capitols. Voting laws are written in state capitols. Denial of living wages happens in state capitols. Cutting money from public education happens in both federal and state, but so much of it happens at the state level.

We're building a multi-year campaign. Our goal is not to stay in D.C. until the change comes. It is to come to D.C., demand that the change must come, and then build a movement that continues to build state by state and in D.C. This will probably not be our first time coming to D.C. But this is the launching of the campaign.

First, we go after shifting the narrative, because right now these issues are not even the narrative. You can look at TV all week long, you can read the news, and never hear about the poor.

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You've had some successes in the last five years with the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, challenging that state's limits on voting rights. How has your experience there shaped your ideas about what's possible nationally?

When we did the first Moral Monday, there were only 17 people that were engaged in direct action and arrested. By the end of the summer, there were more than 1,000 people. And then about 100,000 people came together about six months later in February. We learned that people can come together. You can organize in unlikely places.

We won against the worst voter suppression case in the country. The current Supreme Court ruled unanimously that it was "surgical racism." We beat back and won against gerrymandering. The governor who proposed many of these extremist laws on blocking minimum wages and blocking healthcare and attacking Latinos is no longer governor.

We are now seeing the redrawing of our district lines, which is going to mean that North Carolina has the potential to turn around and no longer have a supermajority, extremist state government that was only that way because of racialized gerrymandering. If it can happen in the South, in a place like North Carolina, it can happen across the country.

In his last months, the Rev. King battled others within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference over the goals of the Poor People's Campaign. He was also worried activists hadn't put in enough work to bring a large enough number of poor people to Washington. As you gear up for Monday, how are you feeling?

There's a scripture that says: "We are not of those who shrink back unto destruction, but we are those who persevere."

There is always a group of people in every generation, a remnant, who refuses to give up. No matter how tiring it gets on the road, no matter how lonely sometimes it gets on the road, when you see them — the rejected and the broken of this country — willing to form coalitions for transformation and moral vision and moral dissent, when you see that it sure gives you a powerful dose of hope.

Jarvie is a special correspondent.

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