It’s hard to overstate the significance of 2018 in the Kairos Center’s long years of work to build a movement to end poverty, or the intensity of the struggles breaking out in 2018 across our nation.
In 2018, Kairos Center staff, alumni, Poverty Scholars, and Poverty Fellows across the country worked everyday to build up the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, serving on state coordinating committees, national teams, and participating in moral direct actions.
On June 23rd, tens of thousands from across the country gathered on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to cap off 40 Days of Moral Action that historians tell us was the largest wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in the 21st Century. More than just a series of actions, the 40 Days galvanized a new model of organizing. Today, there are over forty states that are prepared to lead a moral revolution of values through deep-dive organizing in their communities.
Along with thousands of others, the Kairos Center is the new and unsettling force that Dr. King knew was necessary to save the soul of our nation.
Throughout all of this, the Kairos Center has continued to provide a deeper analysis — historical, political, cultural and theological — of the kairos moment in which we find ourselves today. Here are some of the highlights of our work here on the Kairos blog and elsewhere from 2018.
“Consuming King: The Misuse of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Drum Major Instinct’” by Colleen Wessel-McCoy:
King is not telling his congregation not to buy the things they need or that simple living solves systemic problems. His assessment of materialism is deeper. King talks about consumerism because he is examining the barriers to our commitment to social transformation. To serve others is to live life committed to changing the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism. King talks about consumerism as driving inequality and fueling self-centeredness. He talks about racism as using ego to divide the poor against their own unity and shared interests. And he talks about war as rooted in a dangerous nationalism that drives the U.S. to “engage in a senseless, unjust war.”
“Jesus led a Poor People’s Campaign” by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis:
The aim of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is to shift the moral narrative that blames poor people for their poverty, claims there is not enough to go around when we’re living in abundance, and pits us against each other rather than uniting us to promote peace, justice, love and fullness. It aims to build the power and unity of people from the ground up, in each state where people have come forward to organize.
This Campaign draws inspiration from the Poor People’s Campaign that Rev. Dr. King and others launched in 1968, but it also sees its roots in the Poor People’s Campaign that Jesus led in ancient Israel 2,000 years ago. With impacted people, moral leaders and faith leaders in the lead of our Campaign, we will save the soul of our nation and our democracy and help bring about God’s reign of justice and prosperity for all.
Justseeds Portfolio: Art for the Poor People’s Campaign by Charon Hribar and the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative:
“The Struggle Has Not Stopped: The New Poor People’s Campaign in Marks, Mississippi” by Noam Sandweiss-Back:
Fifty years after Dr. King’s visit, Marks is not much better off. It’s a small town caught in cotton country, its proximity to Parchman State Penitentiary a reminder of its slave-plantation past. Poverty is widespread and the closest grocery store is miles away. But among the 1,500 residents there is also a tradition of resistance to which we all owe a debt and a renewed commitment to organize and build power.
America Will Be Episode 3: The Spirit of Struggle by Dara Kell:
“The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Racism, Poverty, the War Economy/Militarism and Our National Morality,” co-edited by Shailly Gupta Barnes:
The Souls of Poor Folk traces the 50 years since 1968, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and thousands of Americans, alarmed at their government’s blindness to human need, launched the Poor People’s Campaign. As they marched up from the nation’s neglected shadows, Dr. King paused to answer a plea for support from sanitation workers on strike in Memphis. There an assassin snatched his life on April 4th.
“‘When we say ‘poor’ we refer to an inherent power we should claim’: Rev. Emily McNeill & Joe Paparone from the NYS Poor People’s Campaign,” interviewed by Adam Barnes and Nic Laccetti:
Whether or not people ascribe to a particular faith, you can definitely tell when someone really believes in the struggle and believes that change is possible. That difference is a kind of spiritual power in my opinion. You can just see and feel the difference between someone who truly believes change is right and possible from someone who may hold the same values but does not really believe it’s possible.
What has become of the dream? What was the dream? Competing campaigns followed the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One swiftly and deftly began to replace King the radical with King the successful and celebrated American reformer. This King has been used to demonstrate the perfectibility and essential goodness of the great American democracy, where racism is so shallow that it can be ended by children holding hands.
But another campaign followed the assassination, one that King had died planning. When King looked over into the promised land and tried to discern how we would get there, he had called together the poor to lead the way.
We refuse to be a small movement. We refuse to be a tokenizing movement. At every level of leadership—from the National Steering Committee, to the statewide Coordinating Committees, to volunteer ushers and phone-bankers—this Campaign is lifting up the powerful leadership of our LGBTQ movement family while staying rooted in our analysis and practice of engaging masses of people of all genders, sexes, and orientations across all lines of division.
“Soul Force and the Catonsville Nine: Berrigan and King in 1968” by Nic Laccetti:
Both Berrigan and King suggested that nonviolence, beyond its strategic considerations, offers a way of transfiguration, especially for the imagination. As Dan concludes in his message to the actors in his dramatic version of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine: “I cannot imagine an actor entering such a furnace of moral resolve as Catonsville was for us, without changes of a rather serious order occurring within those taking part and those witnessing the act.” Nonviolent direct action ultimately provides an aesthetic style, a soul force, a dramatic form for a new culture “bathed in the light of the resurrection.” This form is still available for us today.
“The Persistent Widow and the Power of Poor People” by Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis:
Take away our poverty, not our children! Take away our high water bills, not our children! Take away our homelessness, not our children! Take away these unjust immigration policies, not our children! …
I tell you tonight. We are this persistent widow. We need justice. We need healthcare. We need housing. We need water. We need the right to vote. We need just immigration. We need education. And we will keep coming back, and coming back, and coming back. And we will win. I believe that we will win.
Militarism is one of those societal ills, like racism, like poverty, like destroying the environment, where a prevailing ideology supports it. Under militarism, endless spending on war is okay. We really need to come together as a public and say, “You can’t keep making a profit off of killing other people, ever. You can’t.”
What I learned from Standing Rock is that when people come together, they can make things happen. Men and women with vision, that’s what we need, and then they can give that vision to people so they know what they can reach for. That’s what Dr. King did right, that’s what the dream was all about — he gave them a vision, and then people could move toward that.
I’m still struggling to find words for yesterday with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. We didn’t have a nice sit-down meeting with Capitol Hill progressive senators and representatives. We staged a full-on narrative takeover … Young Black moms from Flint keeping Corey Booker on the ropes. Generations of Appalachians eviscerating the myth that you can’t organize for revolution in the coal fields. Apache Stronghold women grieving for their sacred sites buried under concrete, forcing the government to hear them. Undocumented moms with their children in their arms closing us out in deafening chants …
What I saw yesterday made it very clear that we have what it takes to build a politically independent force. We have what it takes in terms of clarity, commitment, competence and connection to each other. We have what it takes to force this government, this country to atone for its sins.
Those 16 moral witnesses, practicing moral obedience to an authority higher than that of the State of Kansas, were arrested on charges of criminal trespass. After being released from jail about 6 hours later, they were given no contact orders that stated explicitly “no contact with the victim” and listed the address of the capitol building as the victim.
As King reminds us, though, property is not life. Therefore, it cannot be a victim. Property is meant to serve life. In the Mark passage, Jesus must even remind the disciples not to be enamored with a building. The temple, he reminds them, may crumble for it is only a building, but it is those to whom that building belongs, who ought to be served by the activities of the building, that matter.
“Amandla Awethu — ‘Power is ours’! Kairos visits Abahlali baseMjondolo” by Adam Barnes:
The growing movement of the poor in the United States, guided most recently by the hopeful breakthroughs of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, has much to learn from Abahlali baseMjondolo. As our movement in the U.S. grows, our relationship with the poor in South Africa and all over the world must continue to deepen and expand. The forces that violate life and land are global and therefore so must be our resistance to them. Only by coming together will we stop them.
“Broken Promises and Open Hostility: Organizing Poor Whites in America” by Rev. Sarah Monroe:
I wonder if the vast number of poor people in the United States might find a way to unite, as poor people across race share experiences of prison and poverty and violence and terror. I wonder if poor white communities can learn how to organize. It is true we have bought the lie of white supremacy — even in our poverty, clinging to a hope that our lives really do matter in a system that beats us down while continuing to promise us uplift if only we are smart enough, work hard enough, take enough personal responsibility. It is important to note: white supremacy is not simply an ideology, it is a material, economic policy that decides who has access to the means of life, and poor white people rarely make the cut.
“‘L’eau est la vie’: Water is Life in Louisiana” by John Wessel-McCoy:
The struggle in Louisiana makes it so clear that poverty, racism, militarism, environmental devastation and distorted moral narratives are all operating at once to defend the profits of the pipeline. Note well: the profits are not just those of a particular industry — in this case, the fossil fuel industry. The profits go to capital.
“‘A New and Unsettling Force’: The Leadership of the Poor” by Willie Baptist and Dan Jones:
For Rev. Dr. King the main requirement for the poor to lead was for them to unite. He pointed out that if the poor could “be helped to take action together” they would do so with “a freedom and a power” capable of unsettling the complacency of the masses of the people including large sections of the middle strata. Through becoming a social and political force united and organized across racial and other lines, the poor can move to the forefront of a broad movement for the emancipation and betterment of all humanity.
Given all the ways that poor and dispossessed in America are shamed and locked up, isolated and divided, united action is as difficult to achieve as it is necessary. Exactly because the “cruelly unjust” nature of our society shows itself in such diverse ways, it takes real ideological effort to expose the connections between injustices: their shared roots in the “structures” of wealth and power that Rev. Dr. King referenced. Achieving this necessary unity and leadership of the poor requires the identification, education and training of many leaders with clarity, competence and commitment like that of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Our Democracy is Under Attack! Voter Suppression and Disenfranchisement in the United States” by Shailly Gupta Barnes:
There are, in fact, fewer voting rights today than there were 50 years ago when the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. Since 2010, 23 states have passed racist voter suppression laws, including racist gerrymandering and redistricting laws that make it harder to register, reduced early voting days and hours, purging voter rolls, and more restrictive voter ID laws. Following the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, which gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, 14 states had new voting restrictions in place before the 2016 Presidential election and there were 868 fewer polling places across the country.
“‘Voting is a Source of Power’: 20 Million Immigrants Are Ineligible to Vote” by Kenia Alcocer:
The power of the vote is not realized when the undocumented community, black communities, First Nations communities, Puerto Ricans, D.C. residents, the poor and criminalized communities are disenfranchised from this process. These millions of people are kept out of the electoral process and anyone who can vote must keep them in mind during this electoral season. And because voting is a source of power, voting is, in fact, one of the many lines of division we must overcome. As we organize and band together to fight against poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, the war economy and the distorted moral narrative, we demand also the right to vote and to participate in this democracy.
The California Homeless Union/Statewide Organizing Council was formed to unify the homeless struggles in Salinas, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Marysville and to help build a new movement of the dispossessed. We are committed to the struggle for genuine relief and justice in the aftermath of this disaster. We intend to play our part, assisting in the self-organization of those who’ve lost everything. We know that homelessness is simply the most visible expression of poverty, which includes some eight million poor Californians. We know that we are all one paycheck, one missed rent check, one family medical emergency, one layoff — and now, one “natural” disaster — away from homelessness.
Dr. King said near the end of his life that “the poor and dispossessed of this nation live in a cruelly unjust society. If they can be helped to take action together they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” The duty of people of faith, especially those that are working in organized religion or some sort of faith-based work, is to ask, how do we help the poor to take action together? When we do this, all of our institutions will be transformed.
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In the past year the Kairos Center has had tremendous breakthroughs in our movement building. We have begun to shift the narrative around poverty and build real power among the poor and dispossessed. As we prepare for the days and years ahead we know the promise of this movement rests on the strength, insight, and unity of its leaders. The Kairos Center is dedicated to deepening and broadening its role in these efforts — please donate today to help us continue our important work.