The Poor People’s Campaign will launch a 40-day “fusion” of direct nonviolent action of the poor, clergy and advocates that will take place simultaneously starting May 14 in Washington D.C. and at least 30 states, said campaign co-chairs the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.

Barber and Theoharis, surrounded by members of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival from across the country, made the announcement today at the National Civil Rights Museum, where the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King is being commemorated. King was organizing a massive Poor People’s campaign for economic justice before he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, surrounded by members of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, speaks at the National Civil Rights Museum. By Natalie Eddings.

Campaign officials will announce their demands on April 10 and release a study auditing poverty in America, The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Systemic Racism, Poverty, the War Economy/Militarism, Ecological Devastation and Our National Morality.

“We are here in Memphis saying we need to resurrect a moral revival just a couple of days after the resurrection of Christ,” Theoharis said.

Barber said that 50 years after King’s assassination, systemic poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, the war economy, and Christian nationalism still persist and that the campaign intends to bring these “moral failures” back to the center of public discourse.

“Poverty is never at the center or even the margins of our national debate,” Barber said.

There are fewer voting rights than when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, he said. The movement will include voter registration drives.

Barber said gerrymandering and racist voter suppression “hacked our election long before Russia.”

Their “season of organizing” will culminate in “mass mobilization in Washington, D.C., on June 23, but Rev. Dr. Theoharis says that event will not be the end for the campaign but a “recommitment.”

In a rhetorical flourish, Barber asked the crowd from the Poor People’s campaign whether 50 years later sanitation workers in Memphis make a living wage (“No!”), have strong unions (“No!”), whether Tennessee expanded healthcare (“No!”), and whether Tennessee passed voter suppression laws (“Yes!”)

When asked about what he has to say to Memphians, given the recent analysis from The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK that found that nearly half of Memphis children live in poverty and that black workers earn half of what white workers do, Barber said what they want is to mobilize people in the city and in the state for “an intersectional movement to change the narrative” that says people don’t deserve a living wage.”

He went on to say that if the minimum wage had risen proportionally, it would now be at $15–$17 an hour and noted that elected official make sure they have a livable wage and benefits but do not extend that to their constituents.

Referencing The Price of Inequality by Jospeh Stiglitz, Barber said the question is not how much it costs to pay people enough to live on.

It is: “What does it cost to keep people poor?”


This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.