Building on Martin Luther King’s legacy, the Rev. William J. Barber II and also the Rev. Liz Theoharis are taking on poverty. Co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revivalthey recently unveiled a congressional resolution sponsored by Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Pramila Jayapal of Washington. Its title –“Third Reconstruction: Fully addressing poverty and low wages from the bottom up” — points to the foundation of struggle supporting their effort.
“We’ve had reconstruction efforts that never came to their completion,” Dr. Barber says. “That’s why we have to have a third reconstruction effort in this country.”
Why We Wrote This
Can underlining the ethical imperative to fix long-standing issues move the needle on advancement? These two reverends expect so.
The links between this campaign and King’s are explicit. King announced his Poor People’s Campaign on Dec. 4, 1967; the reverends announced theirs on Dec. 4, 2017. Both also address issues besides poverty, such as racism.
Yet Dr. Barber isn’t copying that earlier playbook. “Every movement draws on the past to some degree,” he says. “Then it has to draw new directions in the particular moment in which it lives.”
“We need to think deep and hard about what kind of democracy we claim to be and what we want to be,” he adds.
Two earlier periods of renovation deeply shaped the United States. Now, a set of reverends, coupled with their allies on the Hill, are calling for a third.
The Rev. William J. Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, unveiled a congressional resolution sponsored by Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee of California and Pramila Jayapal of Washington. The resolution’s name speaks for itself:”Third Reconstruction: Fully addressing poverty and low wages from the bottom up.”
But poverty is not its sole focus. The resolution addresses what the campaign calls”five interlocking injustices”: poverty, and systemic racism, ecological destruction, the war economy, along with the twisted moral narrative of religious nationalism.
Why We Wrote This
Can underlining the ethical imperative to solve long-standing problems move the needle on advancement? These two reverends hope so.
The 19-page document is not a bill; it is”the road map,” Dr. Barber says in a meeting,”calling us to the resolve to make sure the resolution is turned into real policies.”
“We’ve had reconstruction efforts that never came to their completion,” he adds. “That’s why we have to have a third reconstruction effort in this country.”
The post-Civil War Reconstruction was followed by Jim Crow segregation, leaving the next period of reconstruction through the civil rights movement to try and redo what had been begun, says Michael Honey, professor of humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma.
Now, with all the Supreme Court’s 2013 nullification of major pieces of this 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), and strict voting laws now being proposed and passed by state legislatures, the analogy of a third facelift is”a pretty good one,” says Dr. Honey, author of”To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice.”
It comes at a time when new voting rights legislation has been stymied in the Senate, with a Supreme Court judgment anticipated prior to the end of this month which experts believe will erode the VRA farther , and after a pandemic where Black Americans equally expired at higher speeds and experienced the economic pain of lockdowns.
“Glad to see them take up the mantle”
Martin Luther King Jr. once known as racism, poverty, and war the”three major evils.” Dr. Barber and Dr. Theoharis pickup where King’s effort left , purposely creating the link explicit. King declared his Poor People’s Campaign on Dec. 4, 1967; the reverends announced theirs on Dec. 4, 2017. Then, the reverends conducted an audit of America that looked at the 50 years since the first campaign assembled on the National Mall in May and June of 1968, just weeks after King’s assassination. The audit quantifies the status of America’s poor individuals and identifies myths about poverty, like that poverty is the fault of poor people.
The percentage of Americans living in poverty has dropped only a couple points since 1968, with 10.5% of Americans (34 million) still living in poverty in 2019, according to a Congressional Research Service report. That is compared with 12.8% in 1968.
The Rev. Liz Theoharis (center), co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaks from the filibuster out National City Christian Church in Washington, April 5, 2021. Sen. Joe Manchin’s support for the filibuster and opposition to the For the People Act are among the reasons the effort has planned a Moral March in West Virginia on Monday.
“I was glad to see them take up the mantle,” says Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr., the national coordinator for the original Poor People’s Campaign and also a colleague of Kin