Poor People’s Campaign asks America to face the injustices keeping millions in poverty

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: an effort to revive a
famous movement of the sixties focused on reducing poverty, inequality and tackling
social justice. But with such a broad agenda, will it find
enough support at a polarized time? We start with a look at the campaign that
began 50 years ago. Shortly before his death in 1968, Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. expanded his civil rights campaign to include calls for economic justice. He called for an economic revolution that
included protection and services for the poorest Americans. He would call it the Poor People’s Campaign. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., Civil Rights Leader:
We’re coming to get our check. JUDY WOODRUFF: The campaign would bring together
poor people from across the country, and from across racial, ethnic and geographic lines,
including poor whites, for a March on Washington. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Even if you have to
bring your whole family, we are going to have in Washington facilities and we’re going to
have food and we’re going to demand that the government do something about these conditions. JUDY WOODRUFF: The first step was to construct
a shantytown called Resurrection City on the National Mall, housing thousands of participants
in a form of nonviolent civil disobedience. Dr. King himself would never make it to the
March on Washington. He died that spring. But weeks after his assassination, 50,000
people gathered in solidarity, demanding economic reform on the steps where Dr. King had professed
“I have a dream.” MAN: We come with an appeal to open the doors
of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America’s
wealth and opportunity. JUDY WOODRUFF: Half-a-century later, a group
of religious and moral leaders are planning a wave of civil disobedience in Washington,
a revival of the Poor People’s Campaign. It’s headed in part by the Reverend William
Barber, who’s the co-chair of the campaign. He led demonstrators at a rally in front of
the U.S. Capitol this month. And he was arrested, alongside the Reverend
Jesse Jackson, a key figure in the 1968 movement. I spoke with Reverend Barber recently when
he was in Washington. Reverend William Barber, welcome to the “NewsHour.” Thank you very much for joining us. When the original Poor People’s Campaign took
place, it was 19 — it was 50 years ago. Dr. Martin Luther King was involved. After he was assassinated, it continued, but
what is the connection between then and now? REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER, Co-Chair, Poor People’s Campaign:
Well, thank you so much for having us, and on behalf of the campaign, the national — Poor
People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, and my co-chair, the Reverend Dr.
Liz Theoharis. Let me say that the connection was, first
of all, it did continue, that people realized Dr. King was right. Racism, poverty and militarism were interconnected. The connection today is, we did a study, we
commissioned a study with the Institute for Policy Studies, and also had some help with
Urban Institute, anecdotal and empirical data. And we found — we did something called the
Souls of Poor Folk, auditing America 50 years after the Poor People’s Campaign. What did we find? Today, there are 140 million poor and low-wealth
people. Today, there are 250,000 people that die every
year from low wealth. We have less voting rights today because of
the gutting of the Voting Rights Act than we had in 1965, that we have 62 million people
who are working poor, who work less than a living wage, and 14 million children who are
in poverty. JUDY WOODRUFF: Those numbers are overwhelming. They’re daunting. You’re not proposing to do away with poverty,
are you? REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: We are saying there are five
interlocking injustices that America has to face, because they continue to cause policy
violence. That is systemic racism, particularly seen
through the lens of voter suppression, where people use voter suppression to get elected,
and then, once they get elected, they pass policies that hurt the poor, mostly white
women, children and the working poor. Systemic race — systemic poverty, ecological
devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the false moral narrative of religious
nationalism that says, you don’t have to address those issues. We are saying, yes, America is going to have
to face these five interlocking injustices and change them. JUDY WOODRUFF: Why can’t you work through
the exiting political system, work to elect political figures who agree with your agenda? REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, several reasons. Number one, we had 26 presidential debates
in the last presidential election on the Democrat and Republican side. Not one hour was spent on poverty. Not one hour was spent on voter suppression
and restoring the Voting Rights Act, not one hour on the war economy and militarism. So, if we’re not even having the conversation,
the first thing we have to change is the attention violence. We have an attention violence when it comes
to the poverty and the poor. And we must change that before you can change
the agenda, and there must be a movement of the people from the bottom up. JUDY WOODRUFF: Reverend Barber, I talk to
people. I have read folks who agree with much of what
you are saying you want, but they also are saying, you’re asking for too many different
things, that you should narrow your chance of ambitions, that you will have a much better
chance at getting something done. REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, then those same people
should say narrow the Constitution, because it’s pretty ambitious. It says domestic tranquility, establishment
of justice, providing for the common defense, promoting the welfare, general welfare. Narrow the moral call of the Bible that says
you’re supposed to care for the stranger, the hungry, the sick, the left out, the lonely,
the imprisoned. Why is it that wealth and greed gets to ask
for everything? They want tax cuts, they want that. They want to block health care, they get that. But then we tell poor people, you have to
ask for one thing — 37 million people without health care? We have to fight for health care. Millions of people without living wages. We can’t just ask for one thing, because they
are systemically interlocking injustices. JUDY WOODRUFF: If there are so many who you
define as poor in this country, why aren’t we seeing more people rise up and make this
argument? I mean, right now, it’s left to you and a
relatively small group of people who are making this argument, having your — having the march,
having your demonstrations and so forth. REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, I don’t know if I would
say a relatively small group of people. We have organizing committees in 40 states. We have people who are organizing. In the last two weeks, we have had thousands
of people attend, over — nearly 2,000 people do civil disobedience, more than ever in the
history of this country simultaneously doing nonviolent moral fusion, civil disobedience. There is a rising. And why? And so what we’re doing is, we’re launching
a movement. We’re not ending a movement. We’re launching a movement and calling people
to action. Many people do not know how bad it is. And many people who are poor and low-wealth
have been broken and pushed down and ignored. But where we’re going, from West Virginia
to Wisconsin, from Alabama to Alaska, we’re finding that there are thousands of people
who are saying, it’s time for us to stand up and refuse to be silent. JUDY WOODRUFF: You have said that the nation’s
problem is not that we don’t have enough money. You said it’s that we don’t have the moral
capacity to face what ails society. REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Yes. JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you mean by that? REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: That when you look at our
deepest moral framework of the Constitution and our deepest moral values of our religious
tradition, we too often have a political conversation that talks about left vs. right, military
or middle class. That’s too puny. It’s too narrow; 43.5 percent of this country
is poor and low-wealth. People are dying. Even Joseph Stiglitz, the economist, said
that America has to face the cost of inequality. What I’m saying is, we can’t just have a left-right
argument anymore. We need to have a deeply moral argument that
says, this is not just about Democrats or Republicans, this is about America. What kind of democracy do we want to be? You cannot have a democracy continue to exist
when 400 people make an average of $97,000 an hour, and you lock people up who simply
want $15 and the union. JUDY WOODRUFF: Does either political party
come closer to your goals? REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, I think they can. I think they hear that. I think, of course, the extremists who have
taken over the Republican Party have just gone so far extreme. You know, they are more focused on tax cuts
to the wealthy. They want to blame poor people for their problems. Democrats, on the other hand, are willing
to talk about, say, the Affordable Care Act and talk about the middle class. But the reality is, neither party is willing
to put right in front of America the issues of systemic racism, of systemic poverty, ecological
devastation,the war economy, and say the word poverty. It’s almost as though we have tried to remove
even saying the word poverty, when, in fact, the majority of the poor people in this country
are white, women, children, working people and the disabled. So, we have to change our narrative in this
country. And the only way you can change the narrative
is to change the narrator. That’s why this campaign is focused on three
things, breaking through the narrative, massive voter mobilization among the poor, and power
building from the bottom up. JUDY WOODRUFF: Reverend William Barber, the
co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign in 2018, thank you very much. REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Thank you so much. Thank you.

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