September 18, 2018
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  • 12:16 am Poor People’s Campaign seeks to follow in King’s footsteps in Kansas and beyond | The Wichita Eagle

April 4 is a little like Good Friday for the civil rights movement, said the Rev. Titus James Sr., pastor of North Heights Christian Church in Wichita.

It was the day the leader of the movement, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was “struck down by the crucifixion of a sniper’s bullet.”

Now, it’s time for the movement to have an Easter, James said.

“I know Dr. King wasn’t Jesus,” James said. “He didn’t promise he would rise again. But he did make a promise: That I’ll meet you in the Promised Land. … But until we get there, we’ve got work to do.”

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For James, that Easter comes in the form of the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

The campaign is launching in Wichita as well as about 30 other states and Washington, D.C. Its premise is that the very structures and systems that oppress the poor and other marginalized people are immoral.

It will take a moral revival — led by the poor — “to save the heart and soul of our democracy,” according to the campaign.

Organizers say it is meant to follow in the footsteps of King’s own Poor People’s Campaign, which he launched in 1968. At the time, King shifted his focus toward seeking economic justice for people of all races and religions.

In March 20, 1968, less than a month before his death, King spoke about the Poor People’s Campaign to a group in Alabama. He described civil rights already won, such as the right to vote, then spoke about the need to completely change the moral structures of society.

“Now we are going to get the right to have three square meals a day,” King said. “Now we are going to get the right to have a decent house to live in.”

He spoke about a right to education, health care and other “basic necessities of life.”

In 1968, the campaign faced overwhelming odds as King was criticized for moving from civil rights to discussing human rights and criticizing the economic order, said the Rev. Joanna Shenk, author of “The Movement Makes Us Human.” Shenk spoke Wednesday at Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Wichita about her book and how Vincent Harding, a friend of King, helped King hone his opposition to economic injustice and the Vietnam War.

“This was the campaign that set King directly in the crosshairs of the American empire as he dared to question the economic order of things while also uniting people across racial lines,” Shenk said.

With the blow of King’s assassination, the movement didn’t have the momentum to continue, Shenk said.

The new Poor People’s Campaign was announced in December, exactly 50 years after King began his campaign.

It aims to carry on King’s goals while adding a few more. Five areas the campaign intends to address:

Systemic racism and voter suppressionSystemic povertyEcological destructionMilitarizationReligious and Christian nationalism

The Rev. William Barber, a minister and activist from North Carolina who is a co-chair of the movement, said the “moral narrative” has been hijacked to say the only moral issues are opposing gay marriage and abortion and standing for prayer in schools and gun rights.

“That’s just not true,” Barber said. “The deepest moral position in the faith is how you treat the least of these: the poor, the sick, the broken.”

The New Poor People’s Campaign isn’t meant to be political, Barber said. It includes people of diverse races, faiths, nationalities and sexualities.

In Kansas, the campaign is demanding that the state eliminate all photo ID requirements for voting, extend early voting to at least four weeks and ensure that voters can cast absentee ballots. Other issues both nationwide and locally include:

Creating change for the 40.6 million people living in poverty in the United StatesDemanding policies to end mass incarceration, including how people of color make up a disproportionate percent of inmatesExpanding access to healthcareTransitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy

The campaign will intensify on Mother’s Day, May 13, for 40 days of nonviolent civil disobedience, training and voter mobilization in Topeka and other state capitals. There will also be action in Wichita and Manhattan leading up to a mobilization in Washington, D.C. on June 21.

Organizers in Kansas include churches, Black Lives Matter, Sunflower Community Action, health organizations and more.

The Rev. Rose Schwab, a Unitarian Universalist minister who is leading the campaign in Kansas, said the idea of the movement is that everyone has a right to live and that each person is sacred.

Ana Maldonado, another leader of the campaign in Kansas, said the state is poised for change.

“What’s unique and special about Kansas is a lot of Kansans can agree that the government is failing the people of Kansas,” Maldonado said. “It’s really kind of an ideal situation for finding common ground.”

At the event in Wichita on Wednesday, those gathered to hear from Shenk also listened to a speech that King gave at Kansas State University in 1968, less than three months before he was assassinated.

King spoke about the importance of fair housing in Kansas and how people should be “maladjusted” to an unjust society until a good society is realized.

Durell Gilmore, a leader in the campaign in Wichita, said those words ring true today as people in Wichita still live with injustices such as lack of affordable housing

“There’s great, rich history in our elders. There’s vibrant and enthusiastic energy in our youth, and that will energize our movement here in Wichita and throughout Kansas,” Gilmore said. “This country is led by a distorted moral narrative and we seek to embark upon a journey that will lift the narrative of those voices that live the truth of overcoming through love.”

Katherine Burgess: (316) 268-6400, @kathsburgess.

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