The Poor People’s Campaign: Worthy of Quaker support then and now

A 2018 event held by the Poor Peoples Campaign in Raleigh, N.C. (Image via Flickr Commons)

By Joyce Ajlouny

Just days before his assassination in 1968, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a letter soliciting funds for the Poor People’s Campaign that read, in part, “[The Southern Christian Leadership Conference] SCLC cannot wait; it cannot watch as the only systematic response to riots are feverish military preparations for repression. It cannot sit in appalled silence and then deplore the holocaust when tragedy strikes. We cannot condone either violence or the equivalent evil of passivity.”

More than five decades later, it is chilling how applicable those words still are.

The year before, Dr. King had delivered his famous speech at the Riverside Church in New York, saying “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Dr. King’s words ring true especially during the last few months, as COVID-19 sweeps the globe, economic disparities escalate, and hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand an end to white supremacy and police violence. It is abundantly clear that those giant triplets are still with us.

But I am also filled with hope, inspired by the resistance, resilience and powerful solidarity I have witnessed.

As the general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee  – a Quaker organization based in Philadelphia that has been working for lasting peace with justice for more than a century – I have had the privilege of witnessing and supporting some of this courageous work up close.

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Since the pandemic began, my colleagues in the U.S., Latin America, Africa, Middle East, and Asia have mobilized to meet the urgent needs of our communities. And we have added our voice, and our bodies, to the call to free everyone from prisons, jails, and detention centers.

When we again witnessed the callous murder of Black people at the hands of the police and the systematic devaluing of Black life and Black health in medical care, employment, and services, we joined thousands in the streets and in our advocacy efforts to amplify the cry that Black lives matter.

Only months before his assassination, Dr. King wrote a letter to AFSC requesting our organization assign staff to work with him to launch a poor people’s march on Washington – what was to become the Poor People’s Campaign.  AFSC worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and other organizations to mobilize thousands for this effort.

Today, a movement is growing to revive the Poor People’s Campaign and carry forward King’s legacy.

AFSC is again supporting this work, mobilizing our community and resources to amplify the message for moral revival and economic equality.

On June 20, the Poor People’s Campaign will host the largest digital gathering of poor, dispossessed and impacted people, faith leaders, and people of conscience to demand moral leadership and immediate action from those in power to end systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and militarism.

I am so heartened to see faith leaders and faith-based organizations joining these moral calls for justice.

But I am also worried about what comes next if economic inequality and racism continue to deny human dignity.

Because even though communities have responded in tremendous ways, it is still our government that allocates the vast majority of our resources, and – as we have seen over the last few weeks and the last few centuries – will resort to violence to maintain that power. Even during a pandemic, the U.S. has spent trillions on tax breaks and bailouts for banks and large corporations while reducing public investment in human needs.

We can make masks, mobilize protests, and build networks of support overnight. But, without action from government leaders at local, state, and federal levels, we cannot overnight release the funds to build hospitals in communities that need them.

We cannot, on our own, institute universal health care, an end to mass imprisonment, or a living wage. Without action from those in power, we cannot defund the police who terrorize communities of color, or the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

And leaders won’t put those resources where we need them most without sustained efforts for systemic and transformational change.

We need the Poor People’s Campaign and other mass movements to grow until racism, materialism, and militarism are dismantled. And we need millions of people to join us in this effort.

The past few months have shown us that at every level our governments are capable of mobilizing massive amounts of resources and quickly enacting sweeping new policies if they believe the crisis is significant enough.

We are here to say the crisis has been here for centuries. Now, in the face of global pandemic and global uprising, we cannot let those in power ignore and exploit this crisis any longer.

Dr. King was a prophetic voice, but he was also just one of the thousands who carried this struggle forward. It is now our task to see it through.

Joyce Ajlouny, a Palestinian-American, is the general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice, as a practical expression of faith in action. She writes from Philadelphia.