Beyond Electoral Politics: A 21st Century Poor People’s Campaign
“We will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all. We will go there, we will demand to be heard and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it, for that is what America’s poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination. We will be petitioning our government for specific reforms and we intend to build militant, nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty.” (MLK Jr, 1967)
I wish to conjure up the message that MLK thought was so important, less than a year before he died. A message that declared that change would come by building power with people, and taking the people to speak our truth to those who don’t always recognize that we are still here.
Fast forward to the present. We campaigned, we door-knocked, we voted, we danced at inaugural balls, we cried (for the second time) in reverence of the symbolic nature of what President Obama’s first and second elections meant for the progress of this country. We did a lot, but what now? More than 45 years after Martin Luther King gave his speech sparking a poor people’s movement and more than nine months after the last presidential election, what has changed? And more importantly, what are we— as black youth with the helms of the future at our fingertips— changing? In a political landscape where our system is created to be slow-moving, what are we doing, planning and organizing to conjure up enough power to change the social, economic, and political environment, so that those who come after us will experience better a better life than the realities that push the poor communities even further into the margins today. I believe we have enough evidence from history to be hopeful, but I also feel as though activism is stagnant in most youth filled public discourses. If it is true that young people in previous generations have been charged with leading the movement for equality, then where and when are the millennials picking up the torch and moving our world forward?
I have come to understand a few things. One of those things being the amount of time it takes to simply make sure we’re not moving backwards. Backwards to an ideology that has attempted to silence a population of marginalized people every time we start to have a voice. We cannot go back to a creed that has oppressed poor people for decades. And we most definitely cannot go back to a set of political tropes that treat businesses as people, and people as something to be tolerated. Once we make sure we’re not going back, then and only then, can we start to progress and move the needle forward. And it has taken a lot of effort to make sure we’re not digressing, and sometimes I must admit we have failed.
This anti-progressive ideology has put us back decades in certain time periods. It is an ideaology that was afraid of Martin Luther King Jr. bringing poor white and black folks together on one political agenda. It is an ideology that finds a home in the era of Reagonomics and its followers, an ideology that is rooted in playing off racial fears, (Read: Henry Horton), and one that prefers to label more than half of the country (Read: 47 percent to be exact) as people who would rather leech off the government than work hard. This is an ideology of lies and deception; one that says money will trickle down, only to find floods of poverty doing more than just trickling. This is an ideology that has far too often dichotomized the “us” from “them” on immigration status, race, and class. It is an ideology that would rather lower taxes than provide a safety net for all levels of society. It is an ideology that seeks to control the bodies of women, uphold marriage discrimination, and incarcerate a generation of the truly disadvantaged, by creating domestic wars on the blurry gray sphere of what innocence was, and what it has become. (Read: war on drugs)
So now that we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, are we prepared to run? Do we have the energy? Pastors, politicians, leaders, community members, and activists need to have a long talk with each other, and we need to figure out how we will fight for the “28 percent of African-Americans, and 37 percent of black children, who are poor (compared with 10 percent of whites and 13 percent of white children); We need to speak about the 13 percent of blacks who are unemployed (compared with 7 percent of whites); we need to discuss the more than 900,000 black men who are in prison; We need to stand up and address how and why blacks experienced a sharper drop in income since 2007 than any other racial group; and how black household wealth, which had been disproportionately concentrated in housing, has hit its lowest level in decades; and also how blacks accounted, in 2009, for 44 percent of new H.I.V. infections.” We need to speak about how this country has unraveled the remnants of affirmative action, ignored gun control, arrested those who used the occupy movement as a final cry for an ideology that can actually end poverty, and sustained public school segregation more than 50 years after the supreme court decided on Brown Vs. B.O.E.
We must bring these issues into public discourse. But more importantly, we need to figure out who is willing to embrace the scorn and ridicule of being at the forefront of a movement. We need to start, join, and build a movement. If not now, then when?