The Poor People’s Campaign: “Staying Awake During a Revolution”

by Talera Jensen

Started by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 and continued by Rev. William Barber today, The Poor People’s Campaign is a nonviolent activist struggle for economic justice, racial equality, and the fight against the other ills of American militarism. What makes the Campaign unique in its approach to activism are its core concepts of moral fusion—the cooperation of all systems of faith towards the light of truth and justice—and uplifting the leadership of poor people. The Campaign has been shaped by the leadership of King and Barber, both theologians who see the true meaning of faith as a willingness to cause nonviolent disruption for the sake of a greater good.

In a speech right here at Grinnell College in 1967, King challenged us to “keep moral progress abreast of scientific and technological progress.” King finished his speech with a plea to be maladjusted. He said we must be “as maladjusted as Jesus Christ,” who was martyred in an act of “divine discontent.” For many current activists in this country, the thought of a progressive Christianity seems impossible. King said, “our loyalties must be ecumenical rather than sectorial,” which means that our maladjustment cannot divide us. Christians must cooperate with atheists, democrats with republicans, and so on if a nonviolent campaign of resistance is to succeed.

Rev. Barber details his history of involvement with principled nonviolence throughout North Carolina in his autobiography, The Third Reconstruction. Barber calls himself a “religious conservative,” because he argues that the original church, in scripture, was an alien community of refugees. A church that is a part of the power structure in society is not in the spirit of the original church that Jesus created. The stories of the prophets that both King and Barber often quote are, in their essence, stories of dissent. Especially in our era of what Barber calls “James Crow,” the fine print of our laws is set up to institutionalize racism as well as other inhuman hostilities. To live morally in this nation is to take action against the system that is harming us when it is supposed to be protecting us.

The Poor People’s Campaign also responds to “the distorted moral narrative often promoted by religious extremists in this nation.” Barber cleverly uses terms such as “religious conservative” and “religious extremist” in a way that subverts their commonplace meanings. The morality of King and Barber is a Christian morality, but a Christian morality that is inclusive and based on love as opposed to greed.

The success of a movement such as the Poor People’s Campaign relies on developing coalitions with strange bedfellows. This is central to Barber’s idea of “fusion politics,” which seeks commonalities among suffering groups that are typically pitted against each other. It is impossible to make a movement universally appeal to everybody, but it is possible to reach as many interest groups as necessary to make change. This is where religion plays the most important role, because I believe religion to be the most effective system of communication and cooperation throughout human history.

What initially attracted me to the Poor People’s Campaign was the idea of specifically religious nonviolent movement. This is fascinating from a religious studies theoretical perspective, because religion is a pure ideological tool that can be used negatively or positively to affect real human beings. For example, I could relate the Christian anti-apartheid movement led by Desmond Tutu as well as the present-day Christian environmental movements in southern Africa. These movements use the powerful tool of Christianity as a force of good in an area of the world depleted of resources yet replete with religiosity.

I find it important to note current examples of religious activism such as those in southern Africa and Rev. Barber’s, because it counters the argument that religion is an antiquated idea that has no use in the future. As someone who studies religion but is also religiously interested in social change, I find that the reality and power of religion cannot be set aside any longer in progressive movements. Without numbers, the movement will not go anywhere; but without principles, it will not inspire anyone. For the people to have power, they need the ideals and plans that lead them in the direction of change.

1. Poor People’s Campaign. “12 Fundamental Principles.” 
2. Barber, William II. The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2016.
3. King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Staying Awake During a Revolution.” 29 October 1967, Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA.

Talera JensenTalera Jensen is a student at Grinnell College (’19) studying Religious Studies and Gender, Women’s, & Sexuality Studies. She is currently an intern at the Grinnell United Church of Christ collaborating with community outreach and activism programs, including the Iowa Poor People’s Campaign.

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