The Rev. William Barber II and members of the Poor People's Campaign talk to reporters about the need for the "Build Back Better" plan, voting rights, health care, immigrant rights & action on climate
( Jose Luis Magana
Brigid Bergen: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Brigid Bergen in for Melissa Harris-Perry. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr announced that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference would bring thousands of people from different backgrounds and races, all affected by poverty to the doorsteps of our nation's capital. It was an idea suggested by Marian Wright and Dr. King hoped this would bring national awareness to racial disparities, economic inequality, and poverty in the United States.
A year later, in the wake of Dr. King's assassination, the Poor People's Campaign marched on Washington to bring his vision to life. Demonstrators built 3,000 temporary structures in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial, calling it Resurrection City, and occupied the National Mall for five weeks.
Marian Wright: I'd like to say these are they who have walked the muddy roads of Mississippi to the muddy roads of Resurrection City. These are they who have decided that they would make their bodies and their brains and their flesh and blood the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.
Brigid: 50 years later, in 2017, Reverend Dr. William Barber II and Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis relaunched the campaign. The Poor People's and Low-Wage Workers' Assembly and Moral March in Washington this weekend, calls attention to these same issues, systemic poverty, and the policies needed to address our most vulnerable populations. For more on the Poor People's Campaign, I'm joined by Dorian Warren, the co-president of Community Change, the co-chair of the Economic Security Project, and Melissa's co-host on The Takeaway's Deep Dive series. Dorian, thanks for being with us.
Dorian Warren: Thanks for having me, Brigid.
Brigid: I feel like I know you from hearing you on the Deep Dives, Dorian, but just to start this off, can you tell our listeners a little bit about your dual role here, both as an organizer and for the show itself?
Dorian: Sure, as an organizer, Brigid, I am the co-president, as you said, of Community Change, which is an organization that was founded right around that time of the Poor People's Campaign in the late '60s, was founded in 1968, to really focus on many of the issues that the Poor People's March is focusing on poverty, low wages, low wealth, inequality. I would add, Reverend Barber and Reverend Theoharis have of course incorporated some of our current challenges 50 years later, including climate change and ecological catastrophe.
There are a lot of issues that remain all these decades later. My role is to continue to organize low-income and low-wealth people to speak for themselves and to raise their voices around the policies and changes that they need that would affect their lives.
Brigid: Let's talk about the march itself. Can you speak to really the urgency of it and why it's taking place now?
Dorian: The urgency is the fact that if you look at an expanded definition of poverty in this country, by some estimates, up to 140 million people make low wages or low wealth are struggling to make ends meet. The best thing about the march is, in DC, people talk about economic policy a lot. This is framed as a moral march that these are moral issues that the country must address for the well-being and health of the nation. That is really front and center. We can make different choices as a country.
We do not have to have almost half the population struggling to make ends meet, living in poverty or near poverty, one emergency away from catastrophe. I think the second thing, Brigid, is to really envision what is a different kind of future. It's one thing to raise issues of injustice and inequality. It's another thing to paint a picture of what else is possible. A different world is possible.
The thousands of folks in DC are really there to talk about what is the vision for the future that will enable people to actually live their best lives in this country in a moment where we are still living through the pandemic, in a moment when we are still facing threats to our democracy. The last thing here, Brigid, that's really important in a moment where we're reliving January 6th and the attempted coup on our country, this is a nonviolent effort of people raising their voices and saying there is a different path that this country can choose for the 140 million people living in and near poverty.
Brigid: Such a vital distinction there. Dorian, there's so much going on this weekend. Can you talk about some of the other events you're involved in?
Dorian: There are lots of other events around the weekend in terms of ordinary people, grassroots leaders, I work with many, many of them around the country who are meeting for two reasons. One is to envision the future and to talk about their dreams and our dreams for what the country can look like, and what it would take to get there. Some envisioning, some strategy sessions, and of course, some joy and some celebration because it's not a march and it's not a party, too.
I think there is a hunger given we've been living through this pandemic for two years, for people to be in community with each other, and to find some joy in this moment of multiple crises facing the country.
Brigid: Let's talk for a moment about the agenda. This country has gone through periods of reconstruction after the Civil War during the Civil Rights Movement. What is the third reconstruction agenda?
Dorian: Brigid, to understand the third reconstruction agenda, we have to first understand, what were the first and second reconstructions and essentially, Reverend Barber has laid out an analysis to help us make sense of this. If you go back to the post-Civil War period, the first reconstruction, the first time that Black men, remember women didn't get the right to vote until the 20th century but the first time that formerly enslaved folks got expanded rights into our democracy in terms of the right to vote, civil rights, political rights, we built new institutions.
The first reconstruction was the first time that public schools were built in the South that benefited not just formerly enslaved Black folk, but also poor white folks too. That's all about the first reconstruction. We know it ended way too soon. Reverend Barber then talks about the second reconstruction, which is essentially the gains of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the War on Poverty in the mid-'60s. These were all efforts to expand our democracy to make sure we were fully inclusive.
As you know, there have always been backlash as to these reconstruction periods. After the end of the first reconstruction was the rise of Jim Crow and legal segregation for almost 100 years. After the rise of the second reconstruction of the 1960s backlash, particularly around voting rights in which we are living today on states across the country. The idea of a third reconstruction is a vision for how do we keep expanding our democracy and making sure everyone is included and has the same rights and, yes, obligations of what it means to be a citizen.
It is a far-reaching vision to continue the unfinished business of the first reconstruction following the Civil War, the second reconstruction of the civil rights struggles of the 20th century. Here we are in the 21st century, with a climate crisis, with a democracy crisis, yes, with a public health crisis, with an economic crisis and, of course, with a racial injustice crisis. We can't just speak in crises alone. From an organizing perspective, we have to paint a picture of what is possible.
The notion of a third reconstruction paints that picture and says there is a different way in which all are included in our democracy and everyone can, not just survive, but actually have the opportunity to thrive in this country.
Brigid: Dorian, you're clearly passionate about this as an organizer, as someone who is going to be there, what does the history of the Poor People's Campaign mean to you?
Dorian: Very simply. That those who happen to have been born into poverty or those that maybe are hard on their luck and can't make ends meet, their voices are just as equal as everyone else's. Look, Brigid, ultimately, the values of this march are simple. Take a listen to this. It's Bishop William Barber, the co-chair of the march talking about the issues at stake.
Bishop William Barber: We need everybody to make a living wage, a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour. We need universal health care. A report just came out this morning from the National Academy of Science saying that 330,000 people died during COVID didn't have to die if we had had universal health care in this country. We must have guaranteed housing. We must have a fair tax system that tax, the greedy and the corporations, and the wealthy. We must protect voting rights and expand it for everybody. Those are the kinds of policies that we must have to make a third reconstruction real in this country and address the issue of deep poverty and low wealth in this country.
Brigid: It's such a broad agenda, but it sounds like it could be so transformational for so many people in this country.
Dorian: It can be so transformational, but what will be important is for ordinary people, and they have to be engaged in the long effort to transform this country. In many ways, Brigid, I think Reverend Barber is picking up the torch from Dr. King and keeping it lit and glowing around these issues. Again, not just around the economic policy, but around the moral vision and calling us to be our better selves in this country. Calling us to tap into the inner faith in the best of this country in terms of democracy and inclusion, and opportunity and that's what this march is all about.
Brigid: Dorian Warren is the co-president of Community Change, the co-chair of the Economic Security Project, and the co-host of The Takeaway, Deep Dives. Thank you for joining us.
Dorian: Thanks so much for having me, Brigid.
Brigid: That sound from Bishop Barber came from a conversation he had with MHP earlier this week. Let's hear a bit more from that interview.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What is the Poor People's and Low-Wage Workers' Assembly all about?
Bishop William Barber: The mass Poor People's and Low-Wage Workers' Assembly and Moral March on Washington to the polls, is a part of the continuing effort of the Poor People's Campaign, a national call for more revival to say to America, we must center poor and low wealth people in our public policy. We must shift the moral narrative of this country because we have, right now, in the wealthiest country in the world, 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this nation. 43% of our population, 52% of our children, 60.9% of Black people, that is 26 million people, and 30% of white people, that is 66 million people.
Our campaign is saying there are five interlocking injustices that do not have to exist that create these gross inequities systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of healthcare, the war economy, and the false more narrative of religious nationalism and white supremacy. People are coming together in this campaign, from Appalachia to Alabama, from California to the Carolinas, from New York to Nevada to Arizona, of every race, creed, and color, along with religious leaders, along with economists, and others to say another America is possible. We will not be silent anymore. We're not going to just sit back and allow this to continue.
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