More than two years ago, Barber took on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s 1968 call for a “revolution of values” in America and revived King’s effort to build a poor people’s campaign across lines of race, religion and region. Long before the current catastrophe, the Poor People’s Campaign was challenging the “interlocking evils” of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and “the distorted moral narrative” of religious nationalism.
Mobilizing around a call for moral revival, the Poor People’s Campaign has built more than 40 state committees, bringing together poor and low-income people — many now called “essential” workers, faith leaders and citizens of conscience. In state capitals across the country, they spurred the most expansive wave of nonviolent citizen disobedience since the civil rights movement, protesting the skewed priorities of state budgets, the racializing of voter suppression and the cruelty of our immigration system. The group put forth a Poor People’s Moral Budget laying out sensible priorities at the national level. The campaign’s original plan for this year was to bring millions to Washington on June 20 to empower the 140 million people living in poverty in America and lift up their voices. Now, the pandemic has turned that demonstration virtual — but made it even more vital.
The pandemic and the mass unemployment that it has triggered have exposed glaring failures of the old order — from our decrepit public health system to the folly of linking health care to employment to the purposeful incapacity of all agencies dealing with the vulnerable, to the shameless profiteering on misery in a system rigged by and for the few. The urgent need for systemic change is apparent, but our political system is designed to make change difficult. Catastrophe is not sufficient. It requires leaders able to rise to the moment, to help Americans see what must be done and to galvanize a majority for reform. It also requires citizen movements to force the pace of change and to stiffen the spines of politicians.
The mid-'60s were the last time we witnessed dramatic progressive reform. The civil rights movement was demanding justice, culminating in the March on Washington in 1963 when King electrified the country with his “I Have a Dream” speech. President Lyndon B. Johnson moved to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, ending discrimination in public accommodations. He launched the War on Poverty, passed Medicare and Medicaid, and — after his sweeping electoral victory in 1964 and the tragic police riot in the Selma March — the Voting Rights Act and immigration reform.
We don’t know if the next leaders of the country will rise to the moment. In November, President Trump may well finally be held accountable for his costly misrule. Joe Biden has yet to show that he is up to the challenge. But, to some extent, times can make leaders. Remember that Walter Lippmann, the leading pundit of the day, dismissed Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 as “no tribune of the people,” merely a “pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President.” And before Johnson became president, few would have thought that a member of the Southern Senate cabal would stand before a joint session of Congress and promise that “we shall overcome.”
What we can be certain of is that a powerful movement — and a moral leader whose time has come — will mobilize millions to demand change. Adding to Barber’s campaign is the growing militancy of workers, starting with protests by “essential workers” forced to work without adequate protection and without hazard pay.
“We must stop talking about a return to normal,” Barber preaches. “Normal before COVID was 140 million people living in poverty.” And now, he argues, is the time to act. “Let us recognize,” he told participants in the Nation’s virtual gathering, “we cannot give up in this moment, and no matter what it takes; let it at least be written down in history that with our last breaths we fought for the world that ought to be.”