- Reprinted from:
America’s Moral Malady
The nation’s problem isn’t that we don’t have enough money. It’s that we don’t have the moral capacity to face what ails society.
- WILLIAM J. BARBER II
- KING ISSUE
- Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.
Image above: Americans, young and old, dwell in Resurrection City, made of tents and wooden shanties, during the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, in Washington, D.C.
In the summer of 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. visited homes in the hamlet of Marks, Mississippi. Later he remembered the hundreds of children who lacked shoes. A mother told King that her children had no clothes for school. The Nobel laureate wept openly. “They didn’t even have any blankets to cover their children up on a cold night,” he recalled. “And I said to myself, God does not like this.” Then he vowed, “We are going to say in no uncertain terms that we aren’t going to accept it any longer. We’ve got to go to Washington in big numbers.”
In March 1968, King brought together a group of more than 50 leaders representing Black Belt sharecroppers, Appalachian coal miners, Chicano farmworkers, and American Indians, among others, to join the Poor People’s Campaign. The poor, “both white and Negro, live in a cruelly unjust society,” he said. “If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”
America’s sickness was spiritual—and would be terminal, King insisted, unless we experienced a “radical revolution of values.” A shift to the left or the right could not save us; only a movement that changed the moral narrative could refocus our priorities on building a society that honored the dignity of every person. This country had to be born again—not only in budgets and policy decisions, but in spirit.
The preacher in King knew that such a moral revival could not simply be spoken into existence. Poor people, who are so often pitted against one another, needed to unite in a national campaign of direct action to save America’s soul, King told the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Today we face a national crisis that is in many ways an intensifying of the storm that rocked America in 1968. But too often, our attempts to diagnose what ails us cannot get past the tired debates of left-versus-right politics. King’s analysis was that interlocking systems of violence, literal and metaphorical—which he called racism, poverty, and militarism—blinded most Americans to the lives of people in places like Marks. Until a Poor People’s Campaign compelled Americans to see “them” as “us,” the ideal of America would remain beyond reach.In the richest society in human history, nearly half of the population lives in poverty or is struggling to make ends meet.
Four diseases, all connected, now threaten the nation’s social and moral health: racism, poverty, environmental devastation, and the war economy—sanctified by the heresy of Christian nationalism. Since the 2016 presidential election, when white rage propelled a candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan into the White House, racism has been more prominent in public life. Nearly every politician in the United States condemned “hate” after the violence by anti-black, anti-Semitic, and anti-gay white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer. Racism and white supremacy, however, are not about hate. They are about power.
The question is not whether politicians condemn hate, but whether they promote the policy agenda of white supremacy. Since 2010, we have seen an assault on voting rights in numerous state legislatures, which the Supreme Court exacerbated in 2013 by gutting a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act. The states that attack voting rights by using partisan gerrymandering, discriminatory voter-identification requirements, or a rollback of early voting and same-day registration are also home to the lowest wages, the severest poverty, the greatest hostility toward immigrants and the LGBT community, and the deepest cuts in education funding. Politicians who try to suppress voting are using their power to hurt the poor and the working class—white, brown, and black.
In the richest society in human history, nearly half of the population lives in poverty or is struggling to make ends meet. More than half of African American workers and nearly 60 percent of Latino workers are paid less than $15 an hour. In the South, half of all jobs pay less than $15 an hour. During the past five years, state legislatures have stepped in to override many of the municipalities where the “Fight for $15” has succeeded.
Meanwhile, the nation’s economic growth, especially since the Great Recession, has overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest among us. Wall Street got bailouts while working Americans saw their jobs shipped overseas or outsourced to contractors. The top 400 taxpayers earn an average of $97,000 an hour, while people are arrested for protesting because they can’t survive on $7.25 an hour, the minimum that Washington requires.
Environmental dangers also disproportionately hurt the poor. In Flint, Michigan, poor people can buy unleaded gasoline but can’t get unleaded water from the tap. Oil companies are drilling for natural gas on Apache lands, penetrating the aquifers. Coal ash has spilled into rivers, and pipelines are being built through sacred territory. Federal deregulation is opening the door to new fossil-fuel exploration and mining in Alaska, contributing to climate change and scarring native lands.There’s only one way out: for people directly harmed by the economic and political system to fight as one against the few who benefit from it.
The unending war economy has made everything worse. Out of each discretionary federal dollar spent, 54 cents goes to the military. This is money that is not spent on health care, education, affordable housing, or infrastructure. We’ve paid more than $4 trillion since 2001 to fight the War on Terror while claiming that we lack the resources to furnish decent medical care for every American.
Our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough money. It’s that we don’t have the moral capacity to face what ails our society.
While a thorough analysis of America’s moral malady may tempt us to despair, it also brings us face-to-face with the ethical challenge that inspired the first Poor People’s Campaign. The children in Marks made King weep, just as pictures of children burned by napalm in Vietnam had brought him to tears, because he knew that their cruel reality wasn’t inevitable. As James Baldwin wrote: “We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over.” To King, the Poor People’s Campaign was about America’s need for another Reconstruction—for an acknowledgment that a system of race-based slavery had created the inequality that had been passed down to the present day.
This confluence of troubles may seem overwhelming. It suggests, however, that the only way out is for people directly harmed by the economic and political system to fight as one against the few who benefit from it.
In 1968, the idea—a Poor People’s Campaign to unite activists from across the nation and bring them to Washington to shut down the government, to bring the issue of poverty compellingly to the fore—looked impossible. Except there was no other way. The tent city in Washington was snuffed out after six weeks by riot police and tear gas. Even so, the campaign had a lasting influence on national policies, as seen in the additional spending for Head Start, subsidized school lunches and food programs in poverty-stricken counties, and the creation of the Children’s Defense Fund, which has pushed legislation to help poor children and families for the past half century.
Still, we have never completed the Reconstruction that our federal government admitted was necessary after the Civil War. Just as the Poor People’s Campaign proposed, the Reconstruction we need now must arise from the efforts of people harmed directly by racism, poverty, environmental degradation, and the war economy. That is the inspiration for the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which is coordinating direct actions across the country that will begin in May. Activists in at least 32 states and Washington, D.C., will join in 40 days of civil disobedience, including an encampment in the nation’s capital, in hopes of building the power of the poor and the working class to reset the national agenda.
Only by joining together and asserting our authority as children of God can we shift the moral narrative in this nation and create a movement that will challenge those in power to form the “more perfect union” to which we aspire. Now as in 1968, this notion looks impossible. Except, again, there is no other way.
This article appears in the special MLK issue print edition with the headline “A New Poor People’s Campaign.” Atlantic Monthly
Let’s support what needs – and must – be done. Aloha,
I don’t know Dr. Christine Blasey Ford who has accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, but I do know that even before I’d started school, I knew to my bones that good girls were quiet, didn’t complain, shouldn’t tattle, and that if something bad happened, it was probably my own fault.
In my Decatur, Illinois, kindergarten class, I was the youngest and smallest student. My classmate Jeffery was the biggest. He liked to come running and jump on my back. It hurt. A good girl, I didn’t tattle. Finally when my teacher, an otherwise nice woman, saw Jeffery in action, she just laughed and said that he probably liked me. I tried to stay away from Jeffery. One recess as I was waiting in line for the slide, Jeffery ran over and kicked my shin, hard. Of course, I didn’t tell, but a very colorful, huge bruise grew on my leg. When my mother saw it, she asked me what had happened, and I told her about Jeffery. Mom went to see my teacher, and I don’t remember Jeffery picking on me much after that.
Several times in my life, there have been reasons for me to speak up. But as a good girl who didn’t want to get anyone in trouble, I usually haven’t said anything. Even when I have protested, usually nothing changes.
When I first moved to Hawaii, for instance, I went to a doctor on Oahu. When his nurse was outside the examining room, the doctor’s language to me and his physically touching me were really inappropriate! I wasn’t some young thing. I was almost 40 years old, a well-educated professional. I was shocked. I wrote a letter to the head of the Hawaii Medical Association describing in detail what had happened. That association head, another male doctor, thanked me for my letter, said he was glad that I had sent a copy to the offending doctor, and noted that Hawaii has many fine doctors. I should just choose another one. Nothing came of my complaint – and I just gave up.
Several years ago, five female students came to me as their English teacher and the advisor to Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society at the college where I taught. The students complained about one male student who had been stalking some, behaving very inappropriately to others. These young women were all excellent students, one a returning adult; I knew them. And I knew the guy. So, I called the Dean of Students, told him the problem, and made an appointment so the young women could tell the Dean what the male student had been doing to them and ask that the student be given consequences by our college. I went to the meeting with the students. The Dean had invited the male student too, which was okay, but a bit of a surprise. The Dean listened to each of the young women and then heard out the male who basically said that they had all misunderstood his actions (like forcibly entering one girl’s apartment). The Dean asked if any of the five young women had filed a police report. None had. So the Dean dismissed the women’s complaints. Nothing came of the complaints – and I gave up.
My pattern has continued: don’t complain, be quiet, be nice— just stay away from those people. It’s my fault somehow if something bad happens to me. And the offending person gets away with bad behavior.
It’s not just guys in our society that often get away with bad behavior. Institutions can too.
On August 14, 2016, my husband and I showed up a few minutes late–perhaps the second time in about 10 years–to volunteer as ushers at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center’s production of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” As we reached the glass doors to the Castle Theater with all the “good” MACC volunteers watching, we were informed for the first time that now the MACC had a zero tolerance policy for tardiness. Barry and I were ordered to leave! At the time, we thought we were the first ever MACC volunteers to be treated in such a way. That turns out not to be quite true, but it didn’t reduce the shock at the time. We are both well-educated professionals, white, relatively affluent — (I know I live in a protected bubble); we had volunteered hundreds of hours to the MACC and without any warning, we were publicly humiliated! I was hurt and angry.
Loving the MACC for its varied events and experiences and with our teaching and counseling backgrounds, I thought we could help the MACC staff develop positive ways to encourage prompt arrival, good training, and improved treatment of volunteers and event attendees. Barry, as the supportive husband and good idea man that he is, came with me as I asked for one and then after no results , a second meeting, as we went up through the MACC hierarchy.
The MACC Administrators said that they weren’t interested in our ideas, weren’t responsible for other specific incidents I considered unprofessional and unnecessary – including an event manager ramming from behind a man who was walking out the front MACC gates. MACC administrators said that publicly humiliating us had worked. The habitually late volunteers hadn’t been late a single time since our dismissal. Besides the MACC had plenty of other volunteers. The event manager had just done as she had been instructed. The MACC Administration supported her. One woman from the MACC executive office did say she was sorry for the way I felt, but neither she nor the event manager knew why I had been eliminated from the approved MACC volunteer notices.
Not wanting to be shamed by telling other people or somehow hurting the MACC’s reputation and blaming myself for being those few minutes late, I gave up – still humiliated, hurt and angry. I told only a few really close friends and my sister about what had happened. Nothing changed. Barry moved on; I’m still angry.
But I’m telling now what happened to us at the MACC. Some people get kicked out of bars; Barry and I got kicked out of being volunteers at the MACC – the institution in our community that brings art and culture to our lives. The whole thing was ridiculous really. Behind the scenes, the MACC isn’t so wonderful to some people.
Do you believe me? If you don’t, I don’t really care. It’s the truth.
And if you’ve read this far, I thank you for listening.
I’m really tired of being “nice.”
I feel terrible that I wasn’t the advocate that I should have been for the young women college students. I could have gone on to the college chancellor with the five young women and told. If that didn’t work, we could have kept talking until someone listened and acted. I could have written to the head of the medical licensing board for Hawaii about the sleazy doctor and continued talking if that didn’t work. I could have taken our experience at the MACC outside its walls.
For women, shame and the idea that whatever happens is our own fault is deeply embedded in our culture and starts at birth.
Why do some women wait – maybe years, maybe decades later to tell or perhaps never? One woman I know recently revealed that starting when she was 11 years old, she and her sister were raped by their father for years. Today the woman is 75 years old and only now is she telling!
Covering up the bad behavior of others doesn’t really help anyone.
Some of those U.S. Senators who smeared and humiliated Anita Hill 27 years ago when she testified against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas will be judging Dr. Christine Blasey Ford on her allegations against Brett Kavanaugh.
Is Dr. Ford telling the truth? A resounding YES is my opinion – even if she has waited years to tell and didn’t tell her “loving parents” – as our president disparagingly called them. Of course, she wouldn’t have told. I had loving parents too.
It would be just and reasonable to have an actual investigation – not the “he says,” “she says” grilling by a Republican prosecuting attorney with no witnesses in front of the 21-member (17 of them white males) Senate Judiciary Committee that is now scheduled to happen Thursday – and no matter what happens in that Senate committee, the vote to confirm Kavanaugh is already scheduled for Friday. I hope this makes you mad.
Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat, one of only four women on that Senate Judiciary Committee, said on Thursday, September 20th, “I just want to say to the men in this country: Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing, for a change” (“The Maui News, 9/21/18, A 1).
U.S. Senator, Mazie Hirono, Democrat, Hawaii
I wonder what kind of man Jeffery, my kindergarten classmate, grew up to be. That creepy doctor is unlikely have stopped his actions because he just got a letter from me. What about the male college student? Do you think he learned anything from being called in to the Dean’s office and having the young women’s complaints dismissed?
Thank you to the #MeToo Movement, Anita Hill, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and all the women and men in the world who speak out and speak up — and don’t give up. And thanks to all the people who are listening and asking for justice.
We are flawed human beings. We all make mistakes, but covering up for others, excusing with “boys will be boys” attitudes, or pushing someone around because you can are not evolved ways to be and don’t help anyone grow or change.
We can together create a better world, but not if people feel they must stay quiet and can’t tell the truth – and when others don’t show respect or listen.
Good luck, Dr. Ford. I’m wishing you strength. Thank you for standing up.
But it is hard to change things alone.
The really frightening aspect of Brett Kavanaugh becoming a U.S. Supreme Court Justice is that he is only 54 years old, the appointment is for life, and his record is of an extremely conservative judge: against women’s rights, immigrant rights, environmental protection, gun restrictions . . .
On this U.S. National Voter Registration Day, September 25, please
- Make sure you are registered to vote,
- Become an informed citizen on local, state, and national issues, and then
- Vote on November 6, 2018.
Michael Moore’s new movie Fahrenheit 11/9 notes that 100 million Americans did not vote in the 2016 Presidential Election! Get informed — and make your voice heard!
Banner photo: Maui Arts and Cultural Center – photo mauiarts.org