Fifty years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his allies made some ambitious plans. They hoped to bring poor people together across racial and other social divides to call for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
They hoped that a multi-racial Poor People’s Campaign would awaken the conscience of the nation and spark a mass movement to end poverty, systemic racism and the war economy.
The campaign came to pass but the desired results obviously did not. I can’t help but wonder what might have been different had Dr. King not been assassinated on April 4, 1968. I don’t believe that history is made by a few heroic figures, but it seems clear that individuals can make a huge difference.
In any case, half a century later we have unprecedented levels of economic inequality and a political system dominated by the very wealthy who seem intent on widening the gap. More people in America live in or near poverty now than in 1968.
Today, in the wake of passing gigantic $1.9 trillion in tax cuts that benefit primarily wealthy people and corporations, Congress is contemplating drastic cuts and restrictions in food assistance to vulnerable Americans as the mammoth Farm Bill comes up for reconsideration.
Slashing spending on food assistance by billions and cutting off basic help to millions won’t promote work, although it is likely to exert a downward pressure on wages for working Americans.
Other programs — like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, student aid — that help millions of Americans and tens of thousands of West Virginians are also being targeted at a time when the wealthiest 1 percent owns more than the bottom 99.
This is clearly a moral issue, one that is all too often ignored by those preaching restrictive versions of religion and myopic views of morality.
Ignoring issues of social justice goes against the grain of the biblical religion so many profess. The prophet Isaiah, honored alike by Jews, Christians and Muslims, couldn’t be any clearer:
“Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?” (Isaiah 10:1-3)
Around the country, there is a growing awareness of the need to revisit the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign in our new context and to issue a national call to moral revival.
In the words of the Rev. William Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the new campaign, “There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation — one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.”