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More Thoughts on the Poor People’s Campaign

May 20th, 2018

Rev. William Barber is the closet thing to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that we have in our midst.
— Prof. Cornell West on the PPC's Co-Founder

The Poor People's Campaign, modeled on MLK's original movement from fifty years ago, held its first rallies and direct actions this past Monday at 37 state capitals across the country. I was privileged to be arrested for blocking the roadway during the civil disobedience portion of our rally at the capitol building in Harrisburg, PA. These actions will continue every Monday for 40 days and culminate in a national mobilization at the nation's capital in Washington, D.C. The campaign is non-partisan and politicians are not allowed on the platform.
The primary reason I joined the Poor People's Campaign and have encouraged others to do so is its potential for realizing basic structural change. So far, my personal experience with the PPC has been overwhelmingly positive. Hallmarks include dynamic leadership, superb organizational skills, a diverse membership and high morale. I've also witnessed instances of MLK's "beloved community" when interacting with the members. And I agree with radical activist and writer Patrick Walker that "We need to articulate the moral foundations of our political positions."

There is, however, one caveat and I offer it with only the best of intentions. The PPC is tantalizingly close to taking, for me at least, the next logical step for reaching its potential. Along with its powerful moral message, there's a need to be explicit about how the class and power structure of capitalism is inextricably linked to the PPC's "Four Evils" of systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation and the cost of America's war economy. It's not disparaging to either approach to advocate combining faith-based motives with a fact-based, political economy diagnosis of the problem. This symbiotic fusion would provide a formidable tool for advancing the PPC's objectives.

Doing so, would be entirely in keeping with Martin Luther King's own political evolution. By 1966, when speaking to his staff, King offered some positive words about democratic socialism and then said, "You're really getting on dangerous ground here because you're messing around with the folks. You are messing around with the captains of industry." Two years later, in an interview with a NYT's reporter, King said "In a sense you could say we're involved with class struggle... "

This is why King was described as "the most dangerous man in America." Jared Ball, writing for the Black Agenda Report described how King's image has been sanitized (in Cornell West's phrase, "the Santa Clausification" of King) when powerful forces came together "... to ensure that King would be separated from his anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and patient work for a genuine revolution."

Bruce Dixon, the managing editor of Black Agenda Report, has been critical of the PPC's focus on symptoms but not causes. Yet Dixon writes, "we can and should march alongside them. What we cannot do, as socialists, is consent to be led by this cramped vision, a vision which refuses to name capitalism as the problem... "

Yes, there are risks that rank-and-file Democrat types might be offended. But telling the truth about the neoliberal capitalist DP national leadership can't be avoided if the PPC is to obtain its radically transformative potential.

The title of Dr. King's last book was Where Do We Go From Here? We should be having that conversation.


• Author's Note: There's a good article about PPC co-founder Rev. William Barber entitled "William Barber takes on Poverty and Race" in The New Yorker, May 14, 2018.

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