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Rethinking the Poor People’s Campaign

[Update 5.14] This article is being reposted in light of the latest attempt to galvanize a coalition of people to focus on poverty. What if we focused less on our differences and realized that hardship crosses many boundaries and can be a rallying cry for justice? That is the point of this article.

Did you know that the 1963 March on Washington was supposed to initially take place twenty years earlier? Popularized by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that he gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Civil Rights gathering was actually an brainchild of A. Phillip Randolph. Tired of systematic repression, economic mistreatment and the boot of Jim Crow, Randolph and his peers came up with an idea of galvanizing the teeming masses of African-American laborers and connecting their pains to the struggles of the impoverished throughout America.

The decision to focus on economy instead of race was a game changer. Randolph’s plan caught the attention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the political class in our nation’s capital. What the ruling class feared was an awakening of the masses and a consolidation of people around the pursuit of fair governance and equitable treatment. FDR’s Executive Order 8802 desegregated the US war industry as a countermeasure, it was the crumb that was thrown to Randolph and the organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign if they agreed to forestall the planned march of the poor and the working class into the heart of Washington DC.

A dream deferred was revived two decades later as Martin Luther King led a procession into the District of Columbia demanding justice. Except something had changed, the movement morphed from a Poor People’s Campaign into a must attend affair for the bourgeoisie and the politico society. Although the march drew hundreds of thousands, and there were in fact the poor and the underrepresented at the event, gone were the mentions of poverty as social justice was given credence over economic inequalities.

Martin Luther King would later come to regret his decision not to focus more on economic imbalances when discussing the cause he led with courage for more than a decade. Shortly before his death, King noted his reservations to Harry Belafonte about the state of “black” America and whether or not he helped to advance justice.

“I fear I am integrating my people into a burning house.” ~ Martin Luther King

King uttered those words in despair after he realized that social justice without economic equality is a chimera and a fool’s errand. It was this revelation that led King to pivot away from racial equality and focus more on economic disparities. This decision would become MLK’s death sentence. The status quo will abide people who speak to our separable grievances but will silence those who give voice to our common humanity.

Twenty years earlier, Randolph’s demands were met by integrating the US Army. There was no negotiating with King once he was moved to be a bridge builder and made the decision to unite the impoverished masses. When the FBI could not silence him by way of COINTELPRO intimidation and harassing his family, a bullet snuffed out the light of the one man who could have truly organized a mass movement and led a collective action that transcended race and class in demanding opportunity for all Americans.

I write this article in consideration of another Poor People’s Campaign that is getting a lot of visibility on social media recently. I’ve been reflecting throughout the day on this issue and whether or not there can ever truly be a grassroots effort to coalesce the struggling majority into a united campaign to defend our common interests. It dawned upon me at some point this afternoon that the campaign’t name might be one of the barriers that is preventing a coming together of the broader public.

Hardship and uncertainty is not contained to a few but many, what if we stop focusing on our differences and work together to defend our common interests?

Truth is, irrespective of economic conditions, no one likes to consider themselves poor. Calling the movement a Poor People’s Campaign has a way of isolating injustices and making iniquities seem far removed from us. This is not to diminish the pains that people who live below the poverty line face as they regularly find themselves negotiating between shelter and nourishment. Making a virtue out of greed and capital covetousness has wrought us a society where half of the population is either unemployed, underemployed or dependent on economic assistance as the top 1% lead lives of sultans.

Yet, as we acknowledge the suffering of the least among us, we would be wise to consider the following. The very system of economic inequality that is impoverishing people on the lower rung of the economic scale is what is gashing at the vast majority of Americans. Outside of a privileged few, almost all Americans—irrespective of race, class, gender or ideology—are living paycheck to paycheck as one or two missed paychecks is all that stands between us and homelessness. The pains of the poor are thus our pains too. It is an imperative to take our differences out of the equation and focus on our common humanity before we are all made equal before soup kitchens and pavement pillows. Click To Tweet

A movement comes; a movement goes—we have been conditioned to seek redress through campaigns. What’s lost in these endless commotion are the individual choices we all make in either allowing malfeasance or being a party to justice. It seems the more we rant on social media and chant at protests, the more elusive equity becomes. This paradigm of futility is made worse by the incessant need too many have to monopolize pains and spew animosity. If virtue could be gained through combat, we would have attained peace on earth a long time ago. When are we going to realize the folly of factionalism and stop playing into the hands of those who thrive through our division?

I humbly submit that now is the time we depart from movements based on identity and we instead seek inclusiveness. What we need is an All People’s Resolution. I say resolution instead of campaign because the priority should be on our individual decisions more than putting the focus on occasions. We keep having one campaign after another only for us to move on to the next outrage the minute the march is over and the hashtag is no long trending on Twitter. Each one of us should make it our purpose to demand that our government work for us instead of catering to Wall Street and the richest among us. More importantly, we should make it our most urgent priority to empower each other.

Let us put aside politics and our differences, unite as one people and stand resolute in defense of our collective economic interests. As we demand from our leaders, let us more importantly do for ourselves. We can do more to alleviate poverty by shopping locally and reinvesting our money in our communities than we can ever accomplish by protesting and marching. I’m not pushing a political movement or a partisan agenda here; the All People’s Resolution should be a decision each one of us make to stop powering those who step on us and to instead empower each other. #AllPeoplesResolution

We don’t demand equality at the finish line, we simply ask for the opportunity to run the race:: ~ Motto for the All People’s Resolution

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Check out the Ghion Cast below where I discuss Martin Luther King and do so in a way that challenges the conventional wisdom that is pushed to silence his legacy and the truth of his death sentence.

Check out the latest Ghion Cast where I discussed these very issues that confound us and how we can overcome injustice through unity. 

Teodrose Fikre
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Teodrose Fikre

Founder at Ghion Journal
Teodrose Fikre is the editor and founder of the Ghion Journal. A published author and prolific writer, a once defense consultant was profoundly changed by a two year journey of hardship and struggle. Going from a life of upper-middle class privilege to a time spent with the huddled masses taught Teodrose a valuable lesson in the essence of togetherness and the need to speak against injustice.

Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.
Teodrose Fikre
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