Re-igniting the Poor People’s Campaign

by Derrick McQueen
Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock
January 16, 2011

Let me thank you and bring you greetings on behalf of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary. At this moment, about 50 students and community organizers are in the middle of an immersion program in Philadelphia meeting with different groups, building long term relationships with one another, laying the foundation for a movement to end poverty. I ask you for your thoughts and best wishes for their learning experience and they are sending the same for our journey together. It is the mission of the Poverty Initiative to raise up generations of religious and community leaders committed to building a movement, led by the poor, to end poverty. How can this claim be made? In the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Genuine hope involves the recognition that what is hoped for is in some sense already present.”1

Let us still our hearts and minds. In this moment, may we hear a word that will stay in our hearts. May we hear a word that will inspire our feet to march. May we hear a word that will encourage our hands to build. May we hear a word that might strengthen our resolve to do justice and love boldly in this world. Ashe

Last week a woman was rushed to the hospital with horrible stomach pains. When she and her partner reached the emergency room the doctors took X-rays, did blood work, did an ultrasound, they ordered a battery of tests and still no one could figure out what was wrong with her. It was decided that she must be admitted and put in the Intensive Care Unit until they could figure out what was wrong with her. About eight hours into her stay a panel of the best medical personnel came into the room and crowded around her bed. Each officially introduced themselves by their specialty, “I am the best heart surgeon the hospital has, I am the best neurosurgeon, I am the best plastic surgeon, and I am the best anesthesiologist.” The woman’s partner spoke up and said, “And since we’re talking about her stomach and intestinal pipe work do you want my opinion too? After all I’m the best plumber in the room!” The patient laughed painfully and asked the team of professionals, “Can you please get me an internist?”

This story illustrates how, social justice issues, like poverty are handled in the United States and around the world. Expert after expert will give an opinion as to how poverty might be at least serviced but very few people think to ask those living in poverty for their suggestions about solutions. Think about it. It took freed slaves to tell their stories to abolitionists to fight slavery. It took women marching on Washington to get the vote. It took Blacks to build a movement that resulted in the Civil Rights Legislation. It took Stonewall and other uprisings for the Same Gender Loving/Trans community to build the movement for equal rights we see today. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that if anything was going to change in this country around poverty the poor themselves would must lead the charge. And so on November 27, 1967 he started planning one of the strongest protests against one of America’s biggest problems, poverty. It would be called the Poor People’s Campaign.

The plan? Organize poor people of all races, from all over the country and have them descend on Washington, D.C. and in the way of non-violent action, squat on the Mall in D.C. until Congress passed an Economic Bill of Rights. I mean think about how monumental this is. There were Mexican Americans who signed on whose land had been taken away to make California, California and to make Texas, Texas. There were indigenous and native Americans to tell their history and the effects of poverty on their people, there were poor whites from West Virginia and elsewhere whose stories whose stories of hardship were untold, Puerto Ricans from Northern cities with stories to tell, and Blacks from Mississippi whose plight brought tears to King’s eyes whose stories needed telling. Not since pre-slavery colonial America had so many diverse constituents come together demand their rights.

But then the shots rang out in Memphis. On the balcony of the Lorraine hotel on that fateful day, so many dreams lay lifeless as King walked through death’s door. But the Poor People’s Campaign was of a dream of Martin Luther King’s that continued on. In May of 1968 Resurrection city was erected next to the Reflecting Pool in D.C. Schools were set up for the children, resources were shared, Blacks, Whites, Mexicanos, Latinos, Native Americans—all Americans lived side by side. And it rained and rained. Then on June 5th, 1968 Bobby Kennedy was killed. And him with him died the morale needed to sustain the efforts to pass an Economic Bill of Rights.

That’s how history recounts the Poor People’s Campaign. But I have another herstory to tell you today. “Movements begin with the telling of untold stories,” to quote the guiding principle of one the Poverty Initiative’s partners, the Media Mobilizing Project of Philadelphia.

Today I want to tell you the story of an unsung drum major and her community. Marks is a small Mississippi town between Batesville and Clarksdale. There’s a McDonald’s, a gas station, several churches, city hall with courthouse and jail attached, a buffet soul food restaurant, and an intersection that has a four way stop sign in its main road. It was in this town where Rev. King stood and spoke with town folk. Mothers told him stories of feeding their children nothing but “pinto beans morning, noon and night”. Teachers told him that their school lunch plan consisted of sharing an apple among all the students. After his tears dried, it was on his way to Clarksdale that King made up his mind that a mule train would leave from Marks, Mississippi for Washington, D.C.

And here’s where our drum major comes in. Her name is Bertha Burres. You won’t find her in any school history book. If you Google her name you might come up with two or three entries. I gotta tell you now, I love me some Miss Bertha. She’s got a gleam in her eyes that says, ‘don’t let this cane fool you.” She’s gotta a smile that if you can coax it out her one time, you’ll see it every time she sees you. Miss Bertha has this kinda strong, watchful, quiet way of being. But you know for a fact when you talk with her that Miss Bertha will love you hard and call you out on your foolishness with lightning speed. Miss Bertha has that kind of ask in her voice that when she asked if I could do an impromptu service and sermon for the midday senior worship, with a no in my heart, all my lips could utter was a “Yes, ma’am.”

Bertha Burres is a lifelong Marks resident. She moved away with her husband to Chicago long enough to start a family and had six children. When her husband proved not to be all he promised, she went back home. In order to make ends meet she did the usual jobs here and there. But then she heard that the NAACP needed a part-time secretary and so she took the job. She proved invaluable and it was decided that in order to keep her full time that she would do the same job for other civil rights organizations as needed. It was Bertha who knocked on doors trying to get folk to get on board with the mule train. No, after no, she kept on walking and kept on knocking, taking part in organizing rallies. Bt the campaign wasn’t meeting with very much success.

But then something happened in Marks, MS. Down from Atlanta came a man named Willie Bolden. Willie was the person in charge of the Mule Train for the Poor People’s Campaign for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He came down to Marks to talk to the high school students and to rally their support. He had permission to speak to them tried to involve them in the movement. The students were scared. They thought it might hurt them that they would have nothing to come back to. But Willie and his crew went back about four times to enthusiastic students. On the fifth day, they were arrested and thrown in jail. The students protested and the teachers could not calm them down. The students decided take their protest down, to city hall, to the jail, to the courthouse. The teachers, knowing their jobs were at risk left with their students for fear of their safety.

As Bertha tells the story she went down to city hall and was told by the police she had no business there and to leave. As she left, the sheriff’s officers started attacking the students with the butts of their rifles and shooting bullets over their heads. It was the attack on the children that made the parents in Marks, MS take action. They bailed out the SCLC workers and made plans to board the mule train. Seventy-five people and seventeen mule wagons left Marks, Mississippi. Bertha, a single mother of six, took her children with her. When asked what made her go she answered, “You gotta take a chance to make things better, so, I said why not? You know?”2

Another untold part of that story is that these events took place on graduation week for the senior students. Every student that walked out that day and stood witness as Willie Bolden and others were bailed out, whose lives were threatened by the law were not awarded their diplomas that year.

When you read about the Poor People’s Campaign the concluding sentences you will find as reported by historians is that it was a failure. But if you hear about the Poor People’s Campaign from the voices of the poor and those that were there you will hear a different story. Bertha told us that very few people returned to Marks from the mule train. They were right, there was little left for them there when they got back: unemployment, reputations as troublemakers, no high school education.

But she also told us that anyone who wanted was provided a bus ticket to anywhere in the United States to start over by campaign organizers. She told us that she went back, that things did indeed change for her. She told how she went to the houses of poor blacks and poor whites, by herself, alone, to sign people up for the government assistance the campaign had secured. She told how she taught lifelong domestic workers to sign up for Social Security and how to report their past earnings. She told how they were able to lobby for equal treatment by doctors. But most remarkably she told of what it was like to be on a mule train to end poverty going through white towns and feeling the tension as whites started to gather to watch this band of blacks head to the nation’s capital. What it felt like the first time a white sharecropper said, “Thank You!” or “Make sure you tell ‘em we’re here too”. All these things came from the Poor People’s campaign and some say it was a failure. I think not. I don’t know about you, but I count Bertha Burres, the Queen of the Mule Train, as one of the great leaders of the Civil Rights Movement

History has a way of making much ado about this thing we generalize as greatness. Greatness becomes a thing to which we try to aspire. But self-actualized greatness is one a big lie. Others assign greatness. It is assigned by those who later tell the story. Martin Luther King’s description of the man named Jesus is not a story of a great man. It is a story of a failed Poor People’s Campaign with love as its major weapon. But the lives that were touched, the good that was done, the words that were said by that man in everyday relationship and interaction is the true measure of success.

At the very end of his sermon “The Drum Major Instinct”, Dr. King left us a formula by which to live our lives. One by which our greatness will only be determined, by our measure of service with humility. Here it is: ‘Let it be said of us that we are living our lives serving others. Let it be said that we are trying to be right on the war question. Let it be said that we are feeding the hungry and that we are clothing those who are naked. Let it be said that we are visit those who are in prison. Let it be said that we love and serve humanity. And if we must be at the head of the band, if we must be drum majors then let it be said of us that we are a drum major for justice. Let it be said that we are a drum major for peace. Let it be said that we are a drum major for righteousness.’3

And so my friends, I have a little secret for you today. The Poor People’s Campaign was not just an attempt to pass and economic bill of rights. The Poor People’s Campaign understood that poverty and the cultural misappropriation of the biblical text, ‘The poor you will always have with you’, is at the root of a myriad of social ills. It pits whites against black, rich against poor, healthy against those in need of healthcare. It creates conditions in which inequity festers, disembodied charity thrives, conditions for a criminal mentality that romanticizes crime as the only way out, makes a business out of a prison system bent on erasing humanity out of life. It is time to re-ignite the Poor People’s campaign. Poverty is a crisis of humanity itself. It is not only our duty to love one another and to see that poverty is eradicated; it is our right. It is our right, to love our neighbor unencumbered by the constraints of poverty. It is our right to share in the dignity of our brothers and sisters without the illusory divisions caused by poverty. It is our right to be the best we can be in this world with and for one another. It is our right.

To re-ignite the Poor People’s Campaign is to actualize what it means when that chalice is lit at each Unitarian Universalist gathering. As it explains to the world on uua.org, “We light this chalice to celebrate the inherent worth and dignity of every person; To reaffirm the historic pledge of liberal religion to seek that justice which transcends mere legality and moves toward the resolution of true equality; And to share that love which is ultimately beyond even our cherished reason, that love which unites us.”4 I bring this principle to the Movement to end poverty. I hold this image of the lighting of the chalice in my heart knowing that when it is extinguished today that it is then my charge to take that flame and that principle and make it very real in my life.

We celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because history honors his greatness. But don’t let it scare you. For you too are among the great. Do more of what you are doing now. Love your neighbor, treat them well. But most of all learn their story, tell your story. And then I invite you all to come and share those stories as we re-ignite the Poor People’s Campaign. We welcome all on board. There’s no ticket needed for there is room enough for all on this train bound for great change. In solidarity we are of one heart and mind in action. It is in our relationship with one another that we move into our greatness.

1. Branch, Taylor, At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Year’s 1965-1968, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 660.
2. A New and Unsettling Force: Reigniting Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, (New York: The Poverty Initiative At Union Theological Seminary, 2010), 34-47.
3. King, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther, “The Drum Major Instinct”, http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/ , accessed January 14, 2011.
4. http://www.uua.org/spirituallife/worshipweb/chalicelightings/submissions/110095.shtml accessed, January 15, 2011.