This March marks 50 years since the Selma voting rights campaign, the march to Montgomery, and the violence of “Bloody Sunday.” Fifty years later, community leaders in Selma are calling for a continuation of the fight for civil and fundamental human rights, not just a commemoration of those events. By 1965, Dr. King was assessing the situation. Where had the movement come and where would it have to go? He was painfully aware that while they had won victories in confronting discrimination and winning civil rights for African Americans, the steps necessary to ensure the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness had yet to be taken. Speaking at a staff retreat in 1967 he explained:
We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement… But after Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can’t solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power… this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together… you can’t really get rid of one without getting rid of the others… the whole structure of American life must be changed.
Dr. King recognized that the world was changing. The revolutions in technology and weaponry, along with the uprisings of people around the globe, would need to be accounted for in the next phase of the movement if they were to achieve real political and economic power. King also realized that true equality could not be acquired by African Americans unless they were able to break their isolation, unite with the poor and dispossessed of all races, and compel the majority of the American people to listen. King’s prescient call for a Poor People’s Campaign is what we would argue got him killed. It is a call that was left misunderstood and a campaign left unfinished. Yet it is this very task to break our isolation, to unite the poor and dispossessed masses, and to move the whole of our society that we are called to take up today.
Since the battle in Selma in 1965 and the death of Dr. King in 1968, the economic, political, military, and social revolutions have continued to progress. Today we are experiencing unprecedented poverty in the midst of plenty; unnecessary abandonment in spite of unheard abundance. According to official data, 48% of the U.S. population, nearly one in every two people, is poor or low income. These statistics ring as true as ever in Selma, with Dallas County being the poorest county in Alabama. There, over 45% of the population is living below the poverty line and over 60% of the children are living in poverty. At the same time, racial and gender injustice remain as deep as ever, and are exacerbated in many ways by the ongoing crises we face.
The recent outbreaks of Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and Black Lives Matter are varying manifestations of the immoral and unlivable conditions people in the United States are experiencing. Our work to organize among the poor and dispossessed has for years been working to mitigate the tragic effects of death dealing economic, political, and social structures that are today beginning to show their own weakness. But like King in 1965, we are coming to a new phase in building this movement. We can continue to organize as we have been since the first Poor People’s Campaign – fighting our defensive battles, responding to continued austerity measures, working to find a better seat on an already sinking ship, or we can challenge ourselves to take up King’s call and to see the opportunity that exists in the revolutionary moment at hand. Like King we must acknowledge that the problem of poverty is not new. “What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.” We have the scientific know-how to provide all humanity with the basic necessities of life.
The contradictions that revealed themselves in the celebration of the Selma Jubilee remind us that the problem we face is not one of material scarcity, but of political strategy. Thousands of people gathered in Selma to commemorate a moment that helped change the course of our nation’s history. President Obama’s speech on the Edmund Pettus bridge called out the great accomplishments of those who have gone before us and dared to challenge a status quo that violated the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for many who call America their home. What was missing in that moment was a critical reflection on where we have come as a nation and where we must go today.
During our time in Selma, we met quality leaders who are willing to stand up for the assurance of people’s basic human rights. Leaders like Kim King spoke out against unsafe working conditions that she and other workers have experienced while working at the Lear Plant that makes seats for Hyundai. In a right to work state like Alabama, Ms. King’s courage to stand up against the auto industry has high risks. After taking part in an action the Thursday before the Jubilee began, King’s employer, the Lear Corporation, threatened her job unless she agreed to retract her accusations that working at the Lear Plant in Selma is making her sick. Nearby, Catherine Flowers had taken a stand with local residents in Lowndes County who were facing jail sentences if they failed to install septic systems which they could not afford. While health officials say such measures are necessary because of the threat of diseases such as diphtheria and cholera, they fail to acknowledge that they are criminalizing people for being poor. And right in the heart of Selma, near the historic Brown Chapel, Sherry Mitchell is calling attention to the deplorable living conditions local residents are forced to live in. Many are living in what at first sight may appear to be vacant buildings with boarded up windows, no heat, and no running water. But with jobs few and far between, finding shelter by any means necessary has become a reality for many trying to survive in Selma.
The opportunity to meet leaders like Kim King, Catherine Flowers, and Sherry Mitchell was about reminding ourselves that our time in Selma was not about a commemoration, but a continuation of the struggle. It was a time to learn from and critically reflect on the struggles our sisters and brothers in Alabama are facing. It was a time to build connections and assess the possibilities. We are in the phase right now of building a non-violent army, a freedom church of the poor. We need leaders like Ms. King, Ms. Flowers, and Ms. Mitchell to join with us and lead the charge that says those struggling to survive day in and day out will not be overlooked. This was the charge that led Dr. King to call for a Poor People’s Campaign. Standing in a small broken down school room in Marks, MS, Dr. King knew he could not be silent while children went to bed hungry in the richest country in the world. Listening to the heartbreaking stories of those struggling to make ends meet, Dr. King vowed that a Poor People’s Campaign “would be the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity’’ (SCLC, 15 March 1968). It is the same urgent need today that leads to the call for a new Poor People’s Campaign.
The call for a new Poor People’s Campaign is fundamentally a strategic endeavor. In taking up this call we are putting forth a new direction for this nation. We are lifting up the heroes and heroines who are out their fighting everyday against an unfair police and prison system, cuts to public education, the denial of Medicaid expansion, unsafe working conditions and unfair wages, ecological devastation and the dangerous pollution of their communities, and renewed attacks on voting rights that are being waged. In lifting up these daily struggles, we are calling for something new.
The Poor People’s Campaign is a next step in building a movement to end all poverty. It is our opportunity 1) to deepen our analysis of what we are up against, 2) to consolidate our leadership, and 3) to move our strategy to unite the poor and dispossessed one step forward. In this first phase of the PPC, the reconnaissance phase, we are casting the net wide. We are going out and talking with as many leaders as possible to gather responses and reactions to the idea of calling for a new PPC today. Learning from the failures of the 1968 PPC, we realize that a campaign on the scale called for by the current global crisis cannot be launched by, or belong to, a few leaders or organizations. What is needed is a movement that reflects the needs, concerns, experiences and demands of as many, and as diverse, struggles taking place in communities, states and regions across the country as possible. While solidarity was the goal of the participant’s march in 1968, the haste with which the campaign was created left little time for genuine relationship building between the many constituencies that needed to be involved. And it left even less time for the development of a common sophisticated analysis of what people are experiencing that could lead to structural change.
These tasks are no less urgent today. They will not be easy.
Humanity is waiting to finish the unfinished business Dr. King began when he called for a poor people’s campaign in 1967. Uniting the poor and dispossessed to move the whole of society to take up a world-wide war against poverty is the commitment we called for during the 50th anniversary of the Selma bridge crossing. Those who stood at the foot of the bridge 50 years ago had a passionate commitment to transform the words “we the people” into a life experience. As we commemorate their courage, we are challenged to make it our moral obligation to lead this country in a true revolution of values and move the whole of American society to transform the edifice that produces the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.