Bringing Back Dr. King’s Dream
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber’s efforts to revive the Poor People’s Campaign bode well for the political revolution
“I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…We have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.” Reading these powerful words, one could easily imagine that they were delivered in the last few weeks by Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, or some other beacon of modern progressive values. However, these timely words were not delivered in the last weeks, or even the last few decades. These words were delivered in 1967 by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Although often forgotten by even his most ardent followers, this statement is actually the core foundation of one of the most powerful and, sadly, oft-ignored elements of Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision and legacy — the Poor People’s Campaign.
The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968
Shortly before his assassination, Martin Luther King came to a major realization about American social structure and democracy. He declared in May of 1967 “that after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we [must be] moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution”. Dr. King had a vision that the next move for the Civil Rights Movement and for the establishment of equality was revolutionary action, based on international solidarity, against an unjust social and economic order.
To be clear, Dr. King did not believe that that the race issue had been solved in America, nor did he feel that the original task of the Civil Rights Movement was finished. Rather, he believed that the most effective move for the movement to take in the years following 1966 would be to unite beyond racial and national lines and attack what King saw as the root of the issue: poverty in a capitalist system which, by his own admission, had “outlived its usefulness”. This development in thinking would define the last year of King’s life, and it led King to begin a radical period which was bolstered by fierce opposition to the war in Vietnam and his launching of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. This Campaign would seek to embody King’s overarching vision and unite people across racial and national lines in a fight for justice and freedom from oppression.
The Beginning and the End of the Campaign
In 1968, King’s vision and the Poor People’s Campaign were beginning to take concrete shape. King had a vision of a unified, diverse revolution fighting injustice in the economic and social systems of the world. He was convinced that the problems he and his community felt were problems felt by all impoverished people internationally, and that by uniting in resistance and revolution, they could create a new world for all to live in and enjoy equality. He began to speak eloquently of a coming “triple revolution” that was to powered by poor people across the globe.
King began taking steps towards transferring this vision for a “great revolution” into action and was gaining supporters rapidly. By 1968, momentum for the Poor People’s Campaign was growing, and Dr. King had a clear vision of a way to unite in global solidarity against injustice. In a speech that year King, sensing the momentum, declared:
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”
That day, King went on to outline his vision and his faith that through unity and action, all people would reach the “promised land” and live in freedom from poverty and oppression. King was at one of his most powerful, prophetic and radical periods in his life and was poised to launch a massive revolution. The very next day, however, Dr. King was shot and killed. With him, the blossoming dream of a Poor People’s Campaign and the hope for the “great revolution” died as well.
The Revival of the Poor People’s Campaign
In this devastating political atmosphere, one that separates and oppresses millions internationally, the return of the Poor People’s Campaign could not be more timely. As North Carolina NAACP President and national civil rights activist, Reverend William J. Barber recently declared:
This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable. We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.
Barber, demonstrating his commitment to this belief, went on to state that he has stepped down from his position with the NAACP in order to lead this movement and has taken up the helm of the New Poor People’s Campaign.
This development should bring immense hope to anyone who believes in the fight against economic and social injustice in America. What Reverend Barber realizes is that in this moment, we, by necessity, must stand in solidarity. To do otherwise in the face of a global neoliberal apparatus is to guarantee failure. As Dr. King also realized, we cannot stand divided and attempt to take on this powerful, vicious system. We must stand and fight together.
The Hope for Now
Thousands, if not millions, around the nation were called into democratic, revolutionary action on November 9, 2016. These people have started running their own candidates, reforming their parties, and taking to the streets to protest a dangerous administration. Their commitment has been unwavering, and from the airport protests to local elections, they have seen results.
However, this groundswell of revolutionary activity is largely unorganized. There are thousands of local groups fighting the same fight, oftentimes side by side and with duplicated efforts without realizing it. Further, many of these groups lack diversity and any real inclusion of people of color. For activists fighting in this movement, there has been a clear lack of unified leadership, and the result is a scattered, sporadic resistance.
But now, united behind the message of the Poor People’s Campaign and guided by the incredible leadership of Reverend Barber, we stand at a moment of tremendous promise. Through the revival of a historic, radical movement aiming to unite us all in revolutionary action, we stand at a moment of immense promise. If we can come together in the spirit of the Poor People’s Campaign as Dr. King envisioned, we will allow ourselves the chance to forever alter the course of this era and to continue the fight against an unjust, predatory economic and social system.