Getting Into Step: A Movement Podcast is a collaborative project between the Kairos Center and the NYS Poor People’s Campaign dedicated to illuminating the times in which we live, uniting leaders on the frontlines of struggle across the nation, and finding spiritual and intellectual grounding as we work to transform the world.
From the Carolinas to California, from the Bronx to the border, from the Appalachian hollers to Apache sacred lands, Getting Into Step: A Movement Podcast for the Long Haul will explore what it means to build a social movement that addresses the interlocking injustices of our time. We will hear stories highlighting the plight, fight, and insight of the poor, pull pages from our movement songbook to learn how certain songs came to be and what they mean to us today, and take deep dives into the pressing questions of our movement. Join us!
Episode #1: The Power of the Poor
Our pilot episode features a deep and wide-ranging conversation on building the independent political power of the poor with Min. Dr. Savina Martin of the National Union of the Homeless, Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center in North Carolina, and Rev. West McNeill of the NYS Poor People’s Campaign and the Labor-Religion Coalition of NYS.
Minister Martin: When you get sick and tired of being sick and tired, you have no other choice but to organize!
Anu Yadav: I’m Anu Yadav and you’re listening to the pilot episode of Getting into Step: A Movement Podcast for the Long Haul, produced by the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice and the NYS Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, dedicated to uniting the poor as leaders in a movement to end poverty and its interlocking injustices.
We’re in a moment of crisis, with 140 million people – nearly half the US population – who are poor or one emergency away. We are facing an economic recession, climate change, unbridled racist violence and the worst public health crisis in a century.
And this is also a movement moment, where people across many fronts of struggle are uniting together. From the Carolinas to California, from the Bronx to the border, from the Appalachian hollers to Apache sacred lands. Getting into step is connecting with leaders in our movement to build our power. So we’re pulling from pages, from our movement songbook, and talking about the plight, the fight, and the insight of the poor
So join us. Because it’s time.
[THEME SONG: We’re getting into step, getting into step, getting into step to win our freedom. Too many years we’ve been divided, now’s the time to unify, we’re getting into step to win our freedom!]
In today’s episode, we’ll talk about building the independent political movement of the poor with Minister Savina Martin of the National Union of the Homeless, Reverend E West McNeill of the NYS Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and Reverend Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center of Greensboro, NC.
We’ll also be taking a look at the powerful history behind the protest song ‘A New and Unsettling Force.’ But first, here’s Rev. Dr Liz Theoharis, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice.
Reverend Theoharis: In the words of Frederick Douglass – those who would be free must strike the first blow. We understand from history and from our contemporary experience that when poor and impacted people organize around our agenda, transformation happens. When people come together across division, we can realize change. We are not waiting for those in power to save us but rising together, organizing together, coming forward together with the needs and demands of those who have been locked up, left out, allowed to die from poverty and inequality, who have the solutions that can abolish systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the distorted narrative of religious nationalism. We can save the soul of our democracy.
Anu: Our political leaders may change, but we know that the structures and policies that cause such injustice have largely not changed. So today, we’ll hear from three longtime organizers and movement leaders about the necessity, and the urgency, of building our movement of the poor and impacted as leaders in transforming our nation and our world.
Minister Savina Martin is Coordinator of the Clergy Council at the National Union of the Homeless, which has chapters in 13 states. Reverend E West McNeill, is the Executive Director of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition and a tri-chair of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and Reverend Nelson Johnson is co-founder of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, North Carolina and a survivor of the Greensboro Massacre of 1979 that left five people dead at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party.
Check out our conversation.
Anu: Really, really, pleased to be here with you all.
Minister Martin: Thank you so much, Anu.
Reverend Johnson: Thank you very much.
Anu: Wonderful, wonderful.
There’s this huge political divide of Republican, Democrats and right, left, but at the same time, people across these different divides are voting for issues that speak and are responding in any way to the huge struggles, more and more people are facing today. That, you know, over 70% voted, said they’d prefer a government run health care plan, support raising the minimum wage, including 62% of Republicans. And so you know, in Florida, there was a referendum for $15 minimum wage that got more votes than either of two, of the two presidential candidates. And we really live in this land of kind of two Americas, a one of a small, very, very tiny island of a very few wealthy, and a growing mass of essentially the rest of us. And, you know, people are so disillusioned, you know, in this country with political representation that isn’t speaking to, to the needs and concerns of what’s going on. And so we really wanted to get from you and talk to you about your perspective and your experience. What does it mean to build? What is the independent political power of the poor and dispossessed? What is that, what are you drawing from, and what’s the potential that exists today, and that we’re tapping into?
Reverend Johnson, would you like to start by sharing a little of your personal history and how it informs your experience in building the power of the poor?
Reverend Johnson: I’m Reverend Nelson Johnson. I’m a native of North Carolina, and I grew up with a rather keen awareness of actual racial oppression because we were in it. And some of the history, I researched and found that my grandfather was born in 1864, in Louisiana, on a plantation there. And my great grandfather was born in 1836. And the factory or the mill where some of them work was blown up by the northern army. And they walked to North Carolina, the slave master and the slaves. And that’s how my family got to North Carolina. Just a couple of things, in terms of my consciousness, I kind of grew up in a household that actually talked about this and shared stories.
In 1960, I was on a bus, and I wanted, I knew about the sit-ins and stuff that happened at A&T, at the college that most of us and that everyone went to. So me and a little friend of mine decided to move from the back to the second seat from the front. And I was hit hard by a white man, and people threw paper saying that them people don’t know their place anymore. So that was a defining moment for me. When I got back until my dad he asked me to give him a report to the school. But the principal said, Please don’t raise that because that will hurt our school. So I ate it and didn’t think of it much until years later.
I went to A&T, after serving a pitch in the Air Force, North Carolina A&T State University, and that was a whole learning curve for me. I got there in ‘65, was almost like I came back to a new country. Everybody was talking Black Power, quoting Frederick Douglass, and I was coming back from Europe. So it was a beautiful thing. In 1969, I was Vice President of the Student Government there and an organizer, and the short version is that the military took over our campus, after struggling. You’ve heard of Kent State, but the largest military takeover of campus in the United States was the Black campus of North Carolina A&T State University. The school was shut down for the remainder of the year, there was no graduating class. And that catapulted me into a public space where I was pretty much demonized for having been identified as the leader of that.
And the next thing would be the 1979 Klan and Nazi massacre related to a labor campaign where five people were killed. Ten were wounded, including myself. And a Black community was terrorized by a Nazi gunman. After 40 years, the city came forward this year with an apology that said what we all knew – that police and the Klan were complicit with each other, they gave them the parade permit and led the gunman to the preparation side. And the police held back until five people were killed. And so I’ve been organizing in Greensboro. I’m dedicated to play space organizing, how the spirit of beloved community, and we’ve done a lot of things since ‘65.
Anu: Thank you Reverend Johnson. It’s powerful to hear about this history and there is so much history in this room that all your work is so deeply connected to today. Minister Savina, I want to ask you, could you share some of your experience in building the independent power of the poor?
Minister Martin: So, um, you know, during the late 70s, and 80s, you know, that the United States economy kind of underwent a series, you know, a series of changes, which led to sharp rises in homelessness, right. Homelessness was kind of becoming this, this name, right. Homelessness was given by the bourgeoisie, not us, right. Another label. We were no longer characterized as the hobo or the bum, right, remember that? But the most stigmatized, right, and, and the least that have anything to lose, right? And the most violent expression of poverty, that you can see. No dignity, you know, some that have no identification may die. And where do they go? Potter’s Field, right. The shelter system was a place where you have parts of the nonprofit industrial complex, taking full control of people’s lives.
So in the mid 1980s, three men came together in Philadelphia, and, you know, began exploring ways to organize against the indignities, right, of homelessness. And they founded an organization called the Philadelphia Committee for Dignity and Homelessness. And it was at that point in time, you know, months and months later, if I can recall where the church, there was a church on Spring Garden, which was our base of operation, that became one of the first shelters in the nation that was run by and for homeless men and women and children. Right. Then came the formation, right, of the National Union of the Homeless. We had no other choice. We have no other choice. They started with the idea of the national, of the Union of the Homeless simply because in the morning in the shelter, here’s an issue to rally around. They would hand out sheets of toilet paper, and that’s what you would use in the morning. Grown men and women, sheets, one two three four little sheets of toilet paper. And when you get sick and tired of being sick and tired, you’ve got no other choice, but to organize around the issue.
So by 1987, we were organizing primarily on the East Coast. I remember going to New Orleans. I got involved because I was a homeless veteran, right, I heard Chris Brawl speak in Boston, Massachusetts. I was going through the same thing, these indignities right. Using a typewriter, not a computer, in the basement of the shelter. Urging the mayor, please, I need a home for me and my infant baby. I went from the hospital into a shelter, with the birth of my son, in straight, no room at the end, right, one of the slogans we use today, no room at the end! I went straight into a shelter. And when I heard Chris Brawl I said there we go, there, there we go. And that’s how everybody else felt at the height of the National Union of the Homeless, 17 organizations, 50,000 people, from what we hear, you know, with the, you know, the quantitative, you know, the data we’ve accumulated. We were in New Orleans, Philadelphia, we were in Washington, DC, I mean, everywhere. Tucson, right, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Arizona. We were on the river beds in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where homeless families lived in an old yellow bus. We were organizing in the streets and the subway stations everywhere we went, you know? And so yes, there is a need, this is necessary today, to organize and build a mass mobilization of men and women who have nothing to lose, but their chains. And I’ll stop there.
Anu: It’s so incredible to hear more about that history in the context of the relaunch of the National Union of the Homeless. Really building on that deep legacy and work. Reverend E West, could you speak to the work in New York State around this question of organizing the poor?
Reverend McNeill: Yeah, absolutely, and it’s so, such an honor to be with Reverend Nelson and Minister Savina and to hear about and be reminded of this history, because it’s such, it’s such important, powerful examples of the power of organizing. And I think in the context of New York State, it’s so needed, and I think, to really distinguish between organizing and mobilizing. We have a lot of mobilizing in New York State, and we need more organizing.
Yeah, New York State is a really great example of why we talk about right and wrong, not right versus left, because we have, for a few years now, we’ve had a Democratic governor and both houses of our legislature are controlled by Democrats. And that has made a difference around the edges, right, like, there are things that were held up for years that got passed with this new Democratic majority, things like expanded voting rights, protections for trans folks. There, there were lots of like, really meaningful things that happened. But we are still, in a state with half of our residents being poor or low income. We still have the highest inequality in the nation, and the things that haven’t happened and don’t appear imminent, are the things about actually reorganizing how resources are divided in our state. And we’re heading into a period because of the pandemic where that’s going to be even worse. And our, you know, our state is facing huge deficits. We have a governor, Andrew Cuomo, who his whole career has been really against raising taxes on the rich and is a neoliberal austerity kind of Democrat. And so, you know, from the last recession on, we’ve, our state budget has just been decimated – funding for schools, funding for social services is 30% lower than it was, you know, a decade ago, and it’s gonna take an even bigger hit now. And we’re a Democratic, you know, quote, unquote, progressive state in, in some ways, but we’re where Wall Street is located, and where real estate developers have a huge amount of influence in our state governments. And so I think, you know, and we see this across the country, too, in the Democratic Party, where there’s, you know, when it comes to questions of how the economy is structured, and what should be a public good, and how we, you know, organize our economy through taxes, and the Democrats aren’t committed to this, the platform that we’re putting forward. And so we have a huge fight ahead of us, in progressive blue states like New York, just like in the rest of the country.
Anu: Yes, this is so important and really speaks to you know, this crisis that’s continued, you know, and still seeing that refusal to really address the conditions and the reality and what we’re fighting for and continue to fight for today.
And I’m wondering, Savina, if you can say more about, you know, the history of the National Union of the Homeless and what that work was trying to do and your work in it. And, you know, neither, you would say, neither political party wanted to mention poverty and homelessness. Could you just say about how the Union demanded that this be addressed?
Minister Martin: Right. So we began in 1988, mobilizing and strategically discussing how we’re going to go about in these, you know, cities across the country, and begin this winter offensive. And the first thing on the, on the agenda, was a mass takeover of abandoned homes, right. And that’s how we began, you know, really organizing. We were a unified force, right, we tried our best to stay on the same page with each other. And this is – we weren’t using cell phones, we were using stacks of dimes. Every city, every city that we went to, we made sure we knew where the telephone booths were. We used stacks of dimes to organize, we used flyers on an old, you know, machine. (Minister Johnson: Mimeograph machine.) That’s right, that’s what it was called, a mimeograph machine, where, you know, we were creating flyers. We were in soup kitchens, and we said, you don’t have to stand out here and wait in the long line for a stale piece of bread. And the folks go, yeah, we’re eating stale pieces of bread. Right? I mean, and I know what that is, I was going, I was going hungry at one point, and I had to eat some, some food, you know, to generate food for my, for my son. I had to go there. I had to, you know, I mean, so the things that showed me, dos to do. Right, you know, but so, so we were in the soup lines, we snuck into the shelters, and you know, we were telling, urging people, yes, we’re getting ready to do a housing takeover. You know, come on board. What do you got to lose? Come on, we got it. We’re gonna organize to take back what’s ours. You know, we use the slogans – we are homeless, but we’re not helpless. You know, the winter offensive – there’s no room at the end, but we’re gonna make some room at the end. There’s, you don’t have any reason to burn up in an abandoned building. We’re gonna take it and turn it into a home. Right. And, you know, today you see that on, on Takeover. But what that, the height of the success of the Union, I think was predicated on everybody being on the same page, the core group understanding, you know, just like the Poor People’s Campaign, right, phenomenal. Organizers, mobilizers, right. And, yeah, so we definitely were building on the, off the bases, off the backs of our suffering, if you will, of being left in the street, in the cold, in the heat, with no shelters, when the birds and the foxes have places to stay, we had nowhere to stay.
Anu: Thank you, Minister Savina, for all your work, and, I mean, you know, sharing about the indignities of poverty, these violations that in the face of your struggles, and so many others organizing, with stacks of dimes, to unify people across states, across culture, across race, and really to demand that things change. And you also mentioned the documentary Takeover, which for folks who want to know more is a documentary by Skylight Pictures, and shows some of the takeovers that you’re referring to, and folks can check that out online. I want to turn to you Reverend Johnon, you know we’re talking about organizing and uniting people across lines of difference, and in your experience, can you talk about how race and racism has been used in the South as a tactic to divide?
Reverend Johnson: Well, first, just want to acknowledge what Savina shared and the inhumanity, the structure, and to a way of life, and reinforced by systems and institutions. There is no shortage of resources. So I just want to acknowledge and give thanks for that. As I was saying, I grew up in North Carolina. And it’s a strange state, that it’s viewed from without as perhaps the more progressive state of the Confederate States. It was the last out of the Union and was one of the first, the quickest back in the Union. But it is a double minded place. And it tries to disguise the depth of racism that’s built into it.
I grew up in a household that was keenly aware of the racial issue. My father was the president of the NAACP in a town called Infield. So I heard a lot of stories. And we were farmers. And people talked about the white man, my mother a lot, the white man did this and the white man did that. White man chose higher interests to get a little money, to get your seeds to put in the field from a bank. I was thinking, when I grew up, I’m gonna deal with this white man. I’m gonna do something. But I actually didn’t want to farm so I ended up in the military, it was kind of an economic trap. I can’t say that I didn’t have a pleasant experience. I was a little before the Vietnam War ramped up. As I was getting out, though, they were getting big re-up bonuses to reenlist. Because the war, the Gulf of Tonkin had happened and all of that, but that’s it. I actually, let me say this, and I’ll quickly get to what you asked. I actually volunteered at one point to go to Vietnam, and I went down to visit my aunt in New York. And I told her, she looked at me with eyes that could cut you, said I had no idea my sister raised a fool this big, what you’re going to Vietnam for, what those people did to you? And I was just kind of trying to be a good military person. But I didn’t go, I was too young. They were only taking the experienced troops.
But I came to a deeper awareness in the military. Malcolm was killed off while I was in Europe. And we had something called the black side of the barracks, where black people met and talked. And I talked a little bit about, I was partial toward Martin King. And, you know, I was air policeman. We had M1 30 caliber carbines, 45, had them on our hips. And a couple of brothers looked at me and said, Brother, you are crazy. You’re out of your mind. You here with a rifle, guarding nuclear weapons, talking about two words, nonviolence. You know, I had to struggle with that. And I had to struggle with it in a way that it was either authentic, or I wasn’t going to do it.
And when I got out of the military, I came to North Carolina A&T and it was humming. In ‘65, that was the year that Willie MacArthur Ricks started the slogan Black Power. Carmichael got credit for it, but it was Ricks. Ricks went to the third grade, out of Chattanooga, Tennessee: beep, beep, bang, bang, ungawa, Black Power, I was drawn to that. And I organized around that. And that was a black movement. And my sense at the time was that white people were really a problem. That’s the lens through which I saw the world. So we built up the Greensboro Association of Poor People. Actually, this was before Martin King’s Poor People’s March. Say, why your name is that, poor people? it’s because we’re poor but we don’t plan to stay poor. It identifies who we are and what our starting point is. And, and it became a militant thing, we won rent strikes, we stopped paying money, we refused to put it in the bank, people gave it to me, I put a $10 or $20 thousand dollars in a shoe box and hid it. We wouldn’t give it to the bank. Nobody knew where it was.
And when they evicted people, we went in, us students from A & T, and moved the person on campus in an empty building. But in the process of moving, I don’t take credit for this, I do acknowledge that it happened on my leadership, that people, the students, tore up the building. So they broke the toilet, knocked the windows out, and moved everything out. That stopped the eviction. So we won. And we won a number of strikes, blind workers, organize them, and the community became the union. As a matter of fact, we call it the Community Union, that’s so. Well that actually created a tremendous backlash and resentment on the part of the white brothers and sisters. And I mentioned early on, I was in a bus and got beat up in that bus. That was before the military experience. But let me just mention a couple of things.
I think that we are in a culture born and a culture inherited from that culture of propensity to be over against each other. It’s partly linked to earliest memory, you know, and how to leave that world and walk into the world, where we acknowledge that reality, but then put the stamp of permanence on it. In other words, human beings have the potential to change, for better or worse. And we are an agent who are called to be in play, in relationship to that change. And that means if you want people to change for the better, you show to that part of them, by identifying and helping them see the negative part. And that’s how I came to the view of basically organizing in that way. Then we started organizing workers, white and black workers in the textile industry. And at that time, we were straining to help white workers see the commonality of their possibility of elevating themselves by uniting with black people, and affirming the dignity, the worth, and the potential of black people. And in that process, affirm your own. Because you locked up down here again, $3 and change an hour with the rest of us
Anu: There’s so much in what you just laid out, Reverend Johnson, of the ways that racism has been used to divide people, and you mentioned community as the union. And seeing the divisions of race and racism in your life, going to the military and then coming back, organizing, doing the rent strikes, then organizing white and Black workers in the textile mills, because you knew that people needed to take action together. And it seems that all three of you do that organizing across a lot of differences in a number of ways and places. And I want to turn to you, Reverend McNeill, you mentioned earlier in the conversation some of the challenges in organizing in New York State. And In New York State as in other places, urban and rural communities have been polarized, and it does speak to the importance of the statewide work that you’re doing. Can you talk more about that organizing?
Reverend McNeill: You know, one of the experiences that informs the work that we’re doing through the New York State Poor People’s Campaign, and just from my experience, personally, is the Fight for 15 campaign in New York state, which had an amazing success in terms of raising the minimum wage here in the state, but also exposed some real weaknesses in the landscape here. And not to get into the, the whole history of it, but for the first time in New York State with that, at the end of that campaign there, there are tiered minimum wages in different parts of the state, and what we saw was that the greater New York City area was successfully, you know, pitted against in some ways the rest of the state. And so, you know, we still don’t have $15 an hour where I live, and in the vast majority of the state, we’re just at $12 an hour. And there’s a way in which the campaign kind of forestalled further conversations about raising the wage higher. And also, the organizing of low wage workers and fast food workers that was really growing, and particularly upstate, during that campaign, the legislative win ended up being a huge demobilization for that kind of organizing, particularly upstate, and, you know, funding went away. And we see that a lot, I think, around the country. But it’s definitely been a dynamic in this state, that there are, you know, the smaller towns and cities and rural areas have a real dearth of organizing. And when there are campaigns that are focused on statewide legislation, you know, sometimes money and staff resources will come into a place and then leave. And, and that’s not going to build our power for the long haul.
So, as you were mentioning, Anu, one of the strategic priorities that we’ve identified is this need to build statewide, but to build rooted in places and then connect those places to each other. And that’s not an easy task. And so I think we’re still very much at the beginning stages of that kind of work, but we’re seeing how powerful it can be to just start to help people feel connected to each other, across the state. And when you organize across the state, it also automatically crosses lines of racial division, lines of just the kinds of communities, rural, urban, suburban, exurban. And, you know, that’s, we understand in the Poor People’s Campaign, a huge strategic priority to unite the poor and dispossessed across the lines that have been used to divide us. And so what that’s looked like in New York State is to organize in different regions of the state, right now, we have committees in nine parts of the state, and really, at this stage, trying to identify and connect leaders to each other. And to really root this in both personal relationships that are really strong, and a shared vision of the state that we’re, that we want to live in, and the country that we want to live in, the world we want to live in.
And it’s not to say that those short term campaigns don’t have don’t have a place, but we also need that, that long term connection to each other, and a larger vision that’s also just, you know, what people need and want, right. And, you know, we talk in the Poor People’s Campaign a lot about being rooted in, in our values, in our morality. And that’s also, you know, I come to this work partly out of my faith and a real sense of calling. And this is a moral imperative for me to be involved in. And also the Labor-Religion Coalition is, you know, works grounded in these values that cross different faiths. And that’s, you know, I don’t think can be underestimated how meaningful and powerful bringing that to the work is. That it’s not just about, you know, self interest in a pragmatic way. But it’s really about what we believe we are called to be in this world, and the meaning of being alive and being in relationship with each other and being part of a community and a society. And we, that brings a power to our work that our opponents don’t have, right? And so we, I think it’s, it’s really important and strategic for us to really embrace and live into that, that piece of, of what we’re trying to do.
Anu: Well it’s been an honor to have you all to talk about your work, and just want to ask if you’d like to share some thoughts as we close the conversation?
Reverend McNeill: Sure, I’ll give it a shot. I mean, I really do feel hopeful overall, in this moment. We’re definitely in really dangerous times and this pandemic is not close enough to being over and as I mentioned earlier, a lot of states, New York definitely included, and a lot of cities within our state, are, are facing huge crises that are going to lead to deeper austerity, that’s going to have real, terrible impact on people’s lives. So we have hard times ahead, but the relationships that are, you know, represented here, right now, the National Union of the Homeless, and we have, we work really closely with the Rochester Union of the Homeless, and that has been such a bright spot in organizing across our state. There’s just all these connections happening across the state, across the country, and conversations that are so necessary, that yeah, I feel like there’s a lot of reasons to be hopeful right now, even given all the reasons to feel, you know, really concerned and, and sad about what we see around us. But I think what I said earlier that we need organizing in this period, and to understand how that’s different than just mobilizing, and there aren’t any shortcuts to that work. And so we’re, we need to be looking ahead you know, years, not just months to try to see, you know, the progress that we know we need, but, but it’s happening. And the fact that these conversations across the country and across the world are taking place, is just a really, really hopeful sign. And I know just, you know, for myself, and the other leaders in the New York State Poor People’s Campaign, we’re just learning so so much from folks like Minister Savina, and Reverend Nelson and all these people in this network that is just, you know, invaluable. Um, yeah, so I feel really grateful for that.
Anu: Wonderful. Reverend Johnson, any, any thoughts you’d like to kind of share as we close this interview? It’s been such an honor to have you all three here.
Reverend Nelson: Well, it’s an honor to be here. Our focus right now is on putting together a statewide, North Carolina-wide, truth, justice, and healing and reconciliation commission. We think that we have to dig deep at the truth. There is a way that the political system legitimates and covers up the oppression. Truth is getting underneath that and to see how the marginalization of people in almost every category, whether it be education, whether it be gerrymandering and political and voter suppression, or the economic depression, and people don’t have enough to live on, all education and miseducation, however it goes – all of these things are connected, but how they are connected in somewhat blind to us, and part of the truth is to see what you don’t see and to know what you don’t know, out of a process of inviting the people to tell their story in a concentrated way. And then actually bringing all of that together. So we’re probably going to be working with 8 or 10 cities in North Carolina, building on the legacy of the Greensboro truth process, and intertwined with the Poor People’s Campaign. And we want to push our clergy to stand up and to be a disciple of Jesus. And that has a lot more than Sunday morning, winding up your hoop. So I think that we are in a period of great opportunity. But every period like this carries with it great danger. The potential to move forward is here. And the potential to be pushed back is here. Which one we as a movement sow to will determine which one is going to grow. Saying that like a farmer. If you don’t sow the right seeds, and fertilize it and nurture it. So I want to thank everybody, the Poor People’s Campaign and all three of you, for the opportunity to be in partnership with you and look forward to doing more in the future.
Anu: Reverend Dr. Savina Martin, would you like to, to share any last thoughts that you have coming off of this conversation?
Reverend Martin: I just want to thank you all. Just just, just been in an honor to be in your, I’m stuttering because I’m tired and I’m moved. This has been a beautiful afternoon to spend with you all. But I want to close with, you know, we’re not going to lose sight of what’s happening. But it’s about economics, right? It’s about the class, it’s about our class, that’s, that’s losing here right now. But there is hope. There is hope, right in the midst of the pandemic that as we all know, if I could just channel Reverend Barber again, that has, you know, bubbled up the fissures in society. So we know that that exists. And we draw around the many Marys, right, from the Magnificat in Luke, what I spoke about at the Freedom Church of the Poor. There are many Marys and they’re here now. Right? Her, her song was so powerful that they banned it. The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It’s not the gentle, tender, dreamy, Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings. There are many Marys. They’re here now. And that’s who we’re going to reach. They’re in the shelters, they’re in the subway stations, they’re in their cars, they’re in their churches, right? They’re in the homes. There are many, many Marys.
Reverend Johnson: Amen, God be praised.
Anu: Thank you to Minister Savina Martin of the National Union of the Homeless and the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Reverend E West McNeill of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign. It’s great to bring together leaders from across the country to share their stories and lessons, and remind us of the power of organizing today, together. That across so many lines of difference we can and we are building a movement led by the poor to end poverty and all its interlocking injustices. We hope this can become a space where seasoned and emerging leaders – everybody, folks like you, our listeners – can come share ideas and experiences in future episodes
We now turn to our final segment of the show, the Movement Songbook, where we’ll be looking at protest and movement songs throughout history. On this episode, Channie Waites of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign explores the song “A New & Unsettling Force” which was inspired by the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
(Recording of Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking:) “The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the life of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. The only real revolutionary, people say, is a man who has nothing to lose. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. 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.”
Anu: In November and December of 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a 5-part lecture series for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Massey Lectures. He focused mainly on the violent summer of 1967 as it related to the deep contradictions facing society and the ongoing problems of poverty, systemic racism, and militarization. The passage you just heard came from the fourth lecture, “Nonviolence and Social Change,” where King puts forward a call for the leadership of the poor, across all lines that are used to divide us, to be a new and unsettling force.
Today we are seeing these contradictions revealed and the devastating impact that an uncurbed pandemic and an economic crisis is having on the 140 million poor and low-income people that are made poor by a cruel and unjust system. Yet, in the wake of these crises, poor people and moral leaders have been rising up. And in 2018 we launched a Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival with an understanding that we are the New Unsettling Force that have come forth to bring a new moral vision of the common good. It was in this spirit, as we launched 40 days of Moral Fusion Direct Action in the spring of 2018 that this song, “New and Unsettling Force,” was written. Written by Lu Aya of the Peace Poets and Charon Hribar of the Kairos Center. As leaders in 40 states came together in their state capitals and in Washington D.C. every Monday, this song was an affirmation and a reminder that we, the 140 million, are the force for change and we have nothing to lose – nothing to lose but our chains.
The version of “New and Unsettling Force” that you are about to hear was led by Reverend Leslie Oliver of North Carolina during a mass meeting in a tent on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in June of 2018, as hundreds of leaders from around the country gathered for the final week of action that launched what is now the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Reverend Oliver: We are a new, unsettling force and we are powerful. A new unsettling force and we’re here. A new unsettling force for liberation and we got nothing to lose but our chains, and we got nothing to lose but our chains …
When I say justice, you say now – justice (NOW), justice (NOW)
When I say freedom, you say now – freedom (NOW), freedom (NOW)
When I say power, you say now – power (NOW), power (NOW)
When I say freedom, you say now – freedom (NOW), freedom (NOW), freedom (NOW), freedom (NOW), freedom (NOW), power (NOW), power (NOW), power (NOW), power (NOW), justice (NOW), justice (NOW), justice (NOW), justice (NOW), justice (NOW), justice, here we go.
We are a new, unsettling force and we are powerful. A new unsettling force and we’re here. A new unsettling force for liberation and we got nothing to lose but our chains, and we got nothing to lose but our chains. One more time, I can’t hear you! Come on! Energy! And we got nothing to lose but our chains. Give me some applause …
Anu: That was episode one of ‘Getting Into Step: A Movement Podcast for the Long Haul.’ I’m Anu Yadav, and thank you to our guests on this episode – Minister Savina Martin of the National Union of the Homeless and the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, Reverend Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Reverend E West McNeill of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign. And thanks to our segment hosts, Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center and Channie Waites of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign.
This episode was produced by myself, along with Leanne Tory-Murphy, Nic Laccetti, Jake Heller, Charon Hribar and Channie Waites. It was edited by Chaitanya Sangco, and the song Getting into Step is by Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, with lyrics by Avery Book and Charon Hribar, and produced by Pauline Pisano and Jason Crawford. Special thanks to Eleanor Kagan, John Wessel-McCoy, and Adam Barnes. And thanks to *you* for listening.
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Getting into Step: A Movement Podcast for the Long Haul is produced by the Kairos Center and the New York State Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.