Renewing the Poor People’s Campaign

Martin Luther King Jr.’s focus on race was not the greatest threat to the status quo of American culture; it was his economic dream for eradicating poverty.

By Molly T. Marshall

This week I attended a forum at a large African-American church in Kansas City, Mo., which assembled to probe and hopefully jumpstart King’s idea of the Poor People’s Campaign. The room was filled equally with black and white activists, most of us wearied with our years of advocacy for justice. For me, it has usually been for women; the poor, not so much.

The most electrifying speaker at the event was a 34-year-old man who works two jobs in order to support his three daughters. At one job he earns $7.50 and, at the other, makes a whopping $9.23. Working 60 hours a week, he still has more month than money. Living on these subsistence wages, the family lurches from one economic crisis to another.

When it is time for school supplies, his girls cannot purchase all they need. When classmates take a field trip and need money for snacks, they are embarrassed by their lack. When they ask about going to a movie or the zoo, their father simply says no. When they dream of college, he is not sure how it can happen. Yet, he sees education as the key to their future.

He has a vision for greater economic equity, however. Participating in the local organization of fast food workers, STAND UP, he is a strong advocate for unionization and a minimum wage of $15. He is the face of the working poor, those with little recourse but to organize and gain a hearing.

What claim do the poor have on you and me? Most reading this column have the luxury of discretionary time to do so; we are most likely gainfully employed or comfortably retired. Many of us have worked very hard to be where we are, and our life circumstances gave us a hefty boost, most likely.

When do the poor enter our consciousness? Some of us prefer to ignore their burgeoning presence and cynically note, “The poor are always with us.”

Perceptive analysts have suggested that Martin Luther King Jr.’s focus on race was not the greatest threat to the status quo of American culture; rather, it was his economic dream for eradicating poverty by providing every American a guaranteed, middle-class income. In his final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), the civil rights leader laid out his expansive vision.

King did not believe that laissez-faire capitalism could solve the intractable problem of impoverished people. No amount of economic growth could provide jobs for all in his day (or ours!). As he put it:

“We have come a long way in our understanding of human motivation and of the blind operation of our economic system. Now we realize that dislocations in the market operation of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment again their will. The poor are less often dismissed from our conscience today by being branded as inferior and incompetent. We also know that no matter how dynamically the economy develops and expands it does not eliminate all poverty.”

At the Kansas City forum, the chair asked each panelist to respond to King’s proposal that the government provide both work and income “for those inevitably left behind by capitalism’s economic engine,” in the words of Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic.

A lively conversation ensued! One older gentleman remarked about the amount of “horseplay” he observes in the public school where he volunteers. Why should not those who work harder receive the fruit of their discipline and labor? If everyone would have a guaranteed wage, where is the incentive?

I was reminded of the inequity of grace. God’s calculus is “beyond our pay grade,” and we marvel at such capacity to forgive and call beloved the most despicable among us. Yet, God’s grace requires the tangible expression of the work of justice. That is the work of Christ’s body and all others of good will.

An older woman offered a spirited rejoinder to the first speaker, suggesting that King’s proposal should be a temporal intervention to allow a leveling of resources to occur. There was a visceral consensus in the room that the world wealth gap, where the richest 1 percent of the world’s population owns 46 percent of global wealth, cannot continue. And of that 1 per cent, according to a new report from the British humanitarian group Oxfam International, the 85 richest have wealth equal to that of the bottom half of the world’s people. This is a staggering statistic!

The upshot of the meeting was that we could dismantle the power differential between rich and poor if we would pray, organize and act. This seems to be the way of the One who “preached good news to the poor.” Embodying the vision of the Hebrew prophets, he set about a radical reversal of fortune. And so must we.

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