Poor People's Campaign

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II

Earlier this year, we talked about how Frederick Douglass declared in 1857 — in the midst of great trauma in the abolition movement and great attempts to destroy it — that the decisions that were made were monstrous — what the Supreme Court was doing, what the President was doing, what the marshals were doing. The money, the pen and the purse, he said, were all organized against him. But then he turned the page and he said there’s another view, there’s another side. And he concluded by saying, as monstrous as these decisions were, he met them with a cheerful spirit, because he knew they did not have the last word. He also said that maybe these events were necessary links in the chain of events preparatory to the downfall of the entire situation, and he said that when he didn’t even have the right to vote. And people were enslaved. And all year long we’ve been saying to people to stay steadfast, to remember who we are. Today as I come here, I’m reminded of that great psalm that says, “Wait on the Lord and be of good courage, and God will strengthen your heart.”

And “wait” there means to do what we’ve been assigned to do: to believe that the work of justice and the work of love and the moral arc of the universe do bend, they do bend towards righteousness. But we have to be like a waiter who waits in a restaurant, we have to keep serving, keep doing the right thing, and we have to do it with courage. We said in 2016, when Donald Trump was first elected, on Watch Night, that “bowing down would not be an option.” And rather than crying and moaning, we went to work, to building the Poor People’s Campaign, not just for this election but because we knew we needed to build a campaign. We found out we had 140 million other people who needed a campaign: 43% of this nation. We found out that four million people get up every morning and can buy unleaded gas but can’t get unleaded water; we found out that racism, as it affects Black people, Brown people, Asian people, Indigenous people, all needed to be connected together.

We found out that we were spending 800 billion dollars a year on the war economy, and if we just cut that in half, we would still have more money than North Korea, China, Russia, Iran, and Iraq. So we went to work. And so here we are, in November of 2020. And I want to, like Frederick Douglass, meet this moment with a cheerful spirit. And say that what we are seeing happening right now, even as the returns are fully yet to come in, is the beginning of the end of an illusion. You know, since Donald Trump eked out an Electoral College win in 2016, he has proudly, every time he could, displayed a US map that highlights in red the counties he won, despite losing the national popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 3 million votes. 

He has been as pompous as Nebuchadneezar, in the Bible. And the point of the map, like the financial statement he used for years to apply for credit, is to claim legitimacy, to declare he had a mandate, to do the extreme things he and his marauding band of politicians and enablers have been doing. This was a President who never had the support of the majority of Americans. He pretended, created an illusion, to represent most of the country, even though he won the White House by 80,000 votes when 2.6 million poor or low-income people had not even voted. The red mirage, though, was not something created by Trump. It has always been an illusion. An illusion that, for years now, could’ve been broken, if we dared to organize fusion coalitions among poor and low-wealth people. 

And that is our work. In Wisconsin, in Michigan, in Pennsylvania, Republicans fought hard to help Trump remain this appearance of legitimacy on election night. They did it by delaying the counting of overwhelmingly Democratic mail-in ballots. They tried. But elections are not decided by candidates or state legislatures. In a democracy, elections are decided by the people. Donald Trump, though, did not create this myth of the red electoral map. He simply exploited it. 

The map, the idea was created in 1968, some 52 years ago, when Republican strategists went to Richard Nixon and declared that the way to win would be to create something called “positive polarization”: to pit some Americans against their neighbors in so-called battleground states. To deliberately split the country for political gain, especially from Maryland to Nevada, the South and the so-called “Sun Belt.” All Trump did was exploit this. All McConnell has done for years is exploit it. Trump’s extremism has revealed a larger and more diverse electorate, though, that has a power to reshape priorities in American public life. And this is not so much due to Democrats, because Democrats have sometimes given in to the exploitation, they’ve accepted the illusion and they’ve created so-called “Blue Walls.” But this movement, we said, is not a “Blue Wall” or a “Red Wall,” it’s fusion coalitions, it’s lifting up poor and low-wealth people around an agenda, and in a movement, who choose to not only vote, but once they vote to challenge those in power. 

So now where are we: more than 72 million Americans have voted this year to repudiate extremism, racism, Trumpism that comes out of extremism. And fusion coalitions from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to Michigan to North Carolina to Georgia have demonstrated their power by making races too close to call, even in Arizona and Nevada. These are places where just a few years ago, the call would have been easy. We are seeing the beginnings of the complete fall of the Southern Strategy. And guess what, Poor People’s Campaign: you are right in the middle of it. 

And a major cause of it. From living wages to healthcare to immigration to the climate crisis to really dealing with the issues of racism, voter suppression, police brutality, mass incarceration, and all these pressing issues we face — these are not red or blue issues, they’re moral issues, and they’re all connected and they compel us to face who we are as a nation and who we want to be as a nation. And this election has revealed that while the forces of extremist division are strong, because there’s always gonna be some division between justice and injustice, the first goal of our Constitution is not even unity, it’s the establishment of justice, providing for the common defense, ensuring and promoting the general welfare, and then if we do those things we can ensure domestic tranquility. But domestic tranquility is not first, justice is first. 

The forces of extremism have had this illusion, but fusion coalitions are showing the possibility of a genuine democracy is stronger still, and our task now is to build together an America that works for all of us. So many people are talking about the nation being divided, and it is! When hasn’t it been? But it’s not evenly divided, that’s the point. Extremism has exploited our deep wounds, but it’s not evenly divided that’s why the Constitution, even the flawed Electoral College, doesn’t say you have to get all the Electoral College votes — it’s 270, which means there’s gonna be division. But we know that we don’t have to exploit the division — we can build fusion coalitions. 

The only way to really heal the nation is to address poverty and systemic racism. If we address poverty and systemic racism, ecological devastation and the war economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism, then that is the key to the healing of the nation. And it will not bring everybody along, but it will bring so many along that they become a force for moving us forward rather than a force for moving us backward. 

And the coronavirus pandemic, as we pray for all those who are suffering, has not impacted America equally. According to an analysis from the Center for Disease Control, poor people are three times as likely to contract COVID-19 — not poor Black or poor white people, just poor people. Of course, poor Black people in percentage are more likely, and Latino and Indigenous people, but poor people are three times more likely to contract it. And when they do their families are not able to quarantine and skip work.

Poverty has not only made the pandemic worse, racism has made it worse, but poverty has fueled our public health crisis. Many service workers have continued to show up for work, even when they suspect they may have the virus because they have no other way to survive. This is the division we ought to be talking about. Not the division between McConnell and Schumer. Not the cute division people wanna talk about, “can’t everybody just get along?” No! Not when injustice is alive. As one of the great writers in our society, James Baldwin, taught us, we can have disagreement until your disagreement denies my right to exist. We can even have unity, unless in order to be united with you I have to agree that I don’t have the right to exist. 

Forced unity can never be a cop out for injustice. And addressing poverty and systemic racism is the way to bring domestic tranquility. We have to challenge those forces that would rather not deal with that. We cannot agree with them and unite with them if the price of the unity is not addressing the issue of poverty. In the face of this painful reality, when the poor are being affected more through this pandemic, something’s happening — Americans increasingly are supporting policies that address poverty because so many are falling into poverty. Support has increased even among Republicans, who have historically been less supportive. 

Take living wages, for example: 7 in 10 Americans support raising the minimum wage now. According to a recent poll, before the pandemic, only 48% of Republicans backed this anti-poverty measure, but in late August, 62% of Republicans said they support raising the minimum wage. So the key to unify is not just holding hands, is not agreeing to extremism, but addressing poverty and addressing systemic racism. 

Universal access to health care is another anti-poverty measure that a growing majority of Americans support. Despite the Trump administration’s attack on the Affordable Care Act, its expansion of healthcare to 25 million Americans continued to remain popular. Ahead of this year’s election, 63% of Americans said the government has a responsibility to make sure everyone has health care, so there’s even support for universal health care! That’s a 4% increase since last year. So at the very time extremists are trying to give us the illusion that people don’t want health care, the people are in a very different place, and that’s gonna be the key. 

For anybody in leadership, it’s not to kowtow to the extremists to how to unify with them, but to unite with the people, particularly poor and low-wealth people, and make this democracy work for everybody, because that’s the real division we should address. When asked if the government has the responsibility to provide health care to the poor and to the elderly, even a majority of Republicans agree. That’s why our work now is more important than ever, because we are right. Fusion moral coalitions that lift and deal with issues that affect the poor, our five core issues that we have lifted up are the key to the healing of this nation. They have even been the key to many people turning out to vote. No doubt this election has highlighted deep divisions in our common life. Many of those have been regularly exploited by the wealthy few. But this is not new. 

This is not new. This is not about getting back to a place of pristine unity. This is not new. The long story of inequality in America is that race, politics, and cultural issues have been deployed consistently to divide and conquer coalitions of Native, Black, white, Brown, and Asian Americans, who have pushed this nation to guarantee equal treatment under the law and an economy that works for everyone. And those wounds don’t go away when we commit to tackle poverty, but there is the promise that they can heal when we recognize that some things are not about left versus right, but about right versus wrong. And it is wrong that nearly half the citizens in the richest nation in the world continue to struggle with making ends meet, 140 million and growing. And addressing that is the key to healing America, and finishing the illusion of division and polarization.

Ending poverty is the moral issue that can and must unite us all. I mean, think about it: here we are today, and a white older man, and a Black woman with roots in India, have gotten 72+ million votes, more than any time in history. Think about that. In the middle of a pandemic. And they didn’t fully embrace the Poor People’s Campaign’s Agenda, that’s for us to make, but both of them were at our Congress in 2019 when we lifted up a moral policy budget and committed to address poverty.

The Vice President was at our recent gathering on September 14th and declared that ending poverty was central to his understanding and philosophy of change. And they dared to run on $15 and a union, expanding health care, and talking about systemic racism. And they got 72 million votes so far, more than any team in history. What if when they govern they truly decide to address poverty and the moral Jubilee budget, and to tap into the 64 million poor and low-income people that are eligible to vote, and address the 140 million that were in poverty before the pandemic?

My God, if you can get this many votes just doing $15 and a union and health care, and talking about systemic racism. They would not be there if it was not for movements, and the Poor People’s Campaign, Fight for $15 — be clear about this. And what did we do in this election? We didn’t sit back. We contacted 2 million, 2.3 million people, we did that. And over 400,000, 20%, voted early. And in the states that right now it’s too close to call, we touched 1.5 million poor and low-income people. And we said: join the movement and vote. We didn’t even invite them to vote for a candidate, we invited them to vote for a movement, and to look at a candidate through the lens of the movement and vote, and look at what we’re seeing. In Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia, in North Carolina, all places where we, the Poor People’s Campaign, went to work. 

We did this, and we didn’t even have our Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington yet. It’s gonna happen. Thousands of people in the streets around these issues, yes. We’ve not even pushed our Jubilee Justice Agenda in statehouses and the United States Congress, that’s to come. And already, we’re showing the nation the way. You wanna be healed? You gotta address systemic poverty, racism, ecological devastation, the war economy. Now some were saying, well because the Senate may have stayed the same, and some are gonna say the politicians aren’t gonna do this, but let me tell you: don’t forget, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, people are hurting, we might not hear it right now because of the election, but people are dying, still dying, a thousand a day, dying! Hundreds of thousands getting infected. And the people are not gonna stand for that.

They’re not gonna stand for a new administration — I don’t care what the party is — not addressing these issues, so the politicians don’t get to act on us. Because we’re not merely going to be spectators, we are participants. So to all the talking heads that are saying, oh it’s gonna be this, they’re gonna do this, they’re looking backwards, they’re not looking forward, they’re not looking at what the movement is gonna do. People took the time to vote, now that they voted, people are going to be engaged, because we’re not gonna let congresspeople sit up in Congress with health care, and protection, and living wages, and the people not have the same thing. Don’t you forget, my brothers and sisters, that we are called to be a movement. But because you moved in this election, you are seeing in front of you the ending of the illusion, the beginnings of it, the very beginnings of a Third Reconstruction. 

And that’s your work. Now we gotta stay at it. We gotta keep building fusion coalitions, keep building fusion coalitions. Even the closeness of the races in the South, if they don’t turn out exactly like some of us would like, the closeness is a sign of the ending of the illusion. That’s why we gotta keep organizing, keep moving, keep fighting. And remember: we are not of those who shrink back under destruction. But we are those who persevere until the salvation of the soul. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. So my brothers and sisters in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and all of you across the nation who are listening, we know the answer to the healing. Address poverty, address systemic racism, address ecological devastation, address the war economy. 

And we may not end all of the divisions, but healing — healing can come in this nation, because if justice comes, healing is present. If promoting the general welfare comes, healing is present. If caring for the least of these comes, healing is present. And all may not come, but those who come and those who are healed, will be far more than enough to keep pushing this nation in the right path of justice, righteousness and love and truth. And never forget — forward together, and not one step back! God bless you.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

As we heard from Rev. Barber, we know that the fight continues. We know that we have to fight for the heart and soul of our democracy. We have no intention of standing down no matter who is in office come January. 

Indeed, it’s our responsibility to mobilize, organize, register and educate people for a movement — a massive fusion movement that can unite and excite people to win health care, living wages, equitable education. To turn our war economy into a peace economy. As Rev. Barber opened, we come before you today knowing that 250,000 people die every year because of poverty. People of all races and creeds and colors. And now we have nearly 250,000 people who have died from a pandemic — disproportionately poor people and people of color — the vast majority of whom didn’t have to die, but died because of the ineptitude and negligence of this administration. 

In a nation that boasts of being the wealthiest country in the world, we have more than half of children living in food insecure homes, and this pandemic has made this hunger, this poverty, this job loss, evictions, the suffering of children even worse. We know in Lowndes County, Alabama, families have raw sewage in their yards and mold in their homes. We know in Oak Flats, Arizona, Native gravesites have been desecrated and Indigenous families are being pushed out. We know in Grays Harbour, Washington, homeless encampments of millennials are being attacked by police and by militia groups. And we know that in states all over the country, people are burying their loved ones because of a lack of health care. We have an ongoing pandemic and an ongoing economic crisis in the midst of this political crisis that we’re in right now. And the only response to all of this is to build the power of 140 million poor and low-income people.

We also know that we’re having an impact. What the Poor People’s Campaign pulled off in the past weeks, months, years is absolutely tremendous. We reached out to and connected with 2.3 million poor and low-income people in states all across the country. We know that hundreds and hundreds of thousands of those people, perhaps even more, participated in this election when many of them have not voted for maybe twelve years. We know that this happened in key states where that uptick in voting matters and has already helped determine election outcomes that we’ve seen in the past few days. 

We had poll monitors at hundreds of polling places, including places that have not seen poll monitors in decades. As Rev. Barber mentioned, we raised the issues of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy and the false moral narrative of Christian nationalism. We compelled candidates to start taking up these injustices. And where candidates did, the people responded. The exit polls on what voters want show that when the needs and demands of the 140 million poor and low-income people are put on the agenda, the people respond. In Florida, raising the minimum wage and voting for low-wage workers to get a union got more votes than either Biden or Trump. 

And Biden and Harris got more votes than any presidential candidate in history — this from a candidate who ran on $15 and a union, expanding health care, saying, in fact — and we will hold folks to it — that ending poverty is his theory of change. Can we even imagine how many votes such candidates could get if the full, bold, visionary demands of our Moral Policy Agenda to Heal and Transform America, our Jubilee Platform, were being raised? When we frame and fight for these issues, we can break through. This is what we have been saying. And this is what we showed, even in this election.

In Michigan, where my mom is from — which was hit first and worst by deindustrialization, a failing water infrastructure, any many other crises — and in Wisconsin, my home state — a state where unions have been under attack for years, and austerity has become the norm for budgets and social welfare policy — we saw that poor and low-income people, people directly impacted by racism and poverty were able to turn out in large numbers and vote for life rather than death. We know that folks want health care, want the decriminalization of our communities, want social programs that lift from the bottom. We know that we need to ensure that when a vaccine is finally developed for the coronavirus, it’s free and accessible to everyone. We need to curb this pandemic and we need to pass a just stimulus. And we in the Poor People’s Campaign in our 45 states across the country will stay focused on these issues and injustices until all have what everybody needs to thrive, and not just barely survive.

The Poor People’s Campaign has been sounding the alarm on voter suppression from way before this election. And to understand this election we must continue to raise the alarm about voter suppression and an impoverished democracy. As we need to recognize, this was the second presidential election without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. In states across the country we saw closed polling places, voter intimidation, lack of accessibility, poll taxes, and the disenfranchisement of those with criminal justice records. Despite that, people stood in long lines, fought hard and strong to defend the postal service, were determined to make their voice heard, made their own signs to ensure that voters knew where to go, provided snacks and sustenance for those in line, and made sure that every vote counts. 

Rev. Barber has suggested, and this is the truth, that Trump’s failure to address the pandemic — becoming a super-spreader himself, spreading death and illness, especially once he learned that this virus has been disproportionately impacting poor and Black and Latino and Native people — is yet another form of voter suppression. Candidates who are not loudly or boldly calling for the needs and demands of the 140 million poor and low-income people, the 64 million low-income eligible voters, not hearing their names, not hearing their condition, is a form of voter suppression.

But we know that in American history, whenever we’ve faced the forces of regression, a movement has arisen to call us to the higher ground. That’s what abolitionists did in the 19th century, that’s what women’s suffragists did in the early 20th century, and it’s what we have to continue to do — to sound the alarm and to organize, organize, organize. We know that we will keep organizing. We will go to communities that have been forgotten. We will continue to unite people that those in power want to keep divided. We will because we have to — and because we’ve seen it can be done. Fusion movement is the hope of this society. It connects with the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: 

“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will just be an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not constantly be beaten and robbed as they make their life, their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Poverty is not inevitable. Racism doesn’t have to be the last word. It’s systemic sin, and we all have the responsibility to partner to build a movement to confront racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and this war economy, once and for all. 

We are continuing to organize. The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will be organizing caravans on Monday, November 23rd, where we will continue to push for a just stimulus package, where we will continue to demand that our democracy matters. And that we, the people, have the power to organize, to provide justice for all, to establish that all needs are met. Democracy means every human being matters. And that everybody must be in, nobody is out. We thank you for all the work you’re doing, and we ask you to join this powerful fusion movement that can indeed heal and transform this nation. 

We know when we lift from the bottom, when we organize, when we build power from the bottom, everybody, everybody, everybody can rise. And so we will do so, we will rise in these caravans on Monday, November 23rd, we will keep on rising and mobilizing and organizing. And we will move forward together, and not one step back. Thank you very much.