In December of 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. introduced a plan to bring poor people together from across the country, for what he called a "Poor People's Campaign." The campaign would use poverty and economic injustice as organizing points to demand things like guaranteed employment and low-cost housing.
The campaign took a major hit in 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated. But fifty years later, a new Poor People's Campaign emerged with the goals of challenging "systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation's distorted morality." The revamped campaign is touring the country now to build support for a March on Washington next June — and it will be in Portland Thursday night.
The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is cochair of the campaign. She spoke with Nora Flaherty and says the situation hasn't improved much since 1968 — and in fact, things may be worse:
Theoharis: The evils of racism, of militarism, of poverty are still — in fact perhaps worse — than they were even 50 years ago. So we have studied the work that Dr. King was doing. And we've been connected to people who were a part of that campaign and others that have just been organizing in their grassroots communities impacted by ecological devastation, and poverty, homelessness, and racism, and called for a start to organize a Poor People's Campaign for today.
Flaherty: Our current political environment is often characterized as being divisive and hostile. How is the poor people's campaign being received in the current political environment?
What we're experiencing in the Poor People's Campaign is people who haven't been involved in the election, people that couldn't find somebody to vote for, or even people that did vote for President Trump are still seeing the importance of coming together.
You know, we were in Kentucky recently, in Harlan County, and we had poor white people and working class white people, we had Latinos, we had African Americans, we had a whole rainbow of people who were all in the same room together talking about these issues, and saying that this is the kind of space that is needed in this country. We were in Kansas, and we had family farmers who were talking about the high suicide rates amongst them. And they were at the same event as undocumented immigrants and and low wage workers. And so, what we're finding is, actually, even though there's a conversation in our national dialogue about division, what we're seeing is a unity of people of all walks of life from different backgrounds and creeds and colors, from different religions and different ages and impacted by different issues, who are very clear that they need to come together and are coming together in this campaign.
You are on a tour of 25 states. What specific issues bring you to Maine?
There's a high percentage of people who are poor and low income in Maine. And there are many of the problems of kids being taken away from their families because they're poor. It's happening in Maine.
There's no county, no city, no town, anywhere in Maine, where, if you're working full time, for low wages, for minimum wage, can you afford a two bedroom apartment. Those are the issues that we plan to highlight and their issues that are impacting people of Maine, and they're impacting people all across the country. And what's powerful is that people from Kentucky to California to Maine are all coming together.
Your platform includes a broad range of issues: voting rights, economic inequality, mass incarceration, environmental degradation, the military industrial complex -- what do you hope to accomplish in this?
We performed an audit, and it was various known and respected think tanks and policymakers who kind of looked at the problems that have arisen over the past 50 years and put together a report that helped us to determine what issues, what demands this campaign should take up. And also coming out of the grassroots communities that make up the 43 different coordinating committees across the country that are the “Poor People's Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival,” we have a platform, a set of demands. So we're at this point building the power to be able to enact the demands that that the 140 million poor and low-income people, the 15 million families that can't afford water, the 62 million workers who are making less than a living wage need. And, by doing so, we are helping to save the soul of the democracy of this country and lift the load of insecurity and poverty and violence, not just from the poorest in our society but from everybody.
Theoharis and cochair Bishop Dr. William J. Barber II will be guests on Thursday's Maine Calling.
Ed note: this interview has been edited for time and clarity.
Originally published Oct. 9, 2019 at 4:55 p.m. ET.