Maryland Poor People's Campaign looks to Dr. King for inspiration

The work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not end with the civil rights movement alone. By 1968, King had expanded his criticism to include "the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism," supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee and speaking again U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

King, along with Ralph Abernathy, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was instrumental in planning a Poor People's Campaign, which would make use of non-violent civil disobedience — thousands of the poor traveling to Washington, D.C. — to turn the focus of the U.S. government toward the plight of the poor. Among the movement's demands were a commitment to building half a million public housing units annually, $30 billion in annual antipoverty appropriations and a guaranteed income.


The original Poor People's Campaign was seriously dampened, though not broken, by King's assassination on April 4, 1968, but there are those that wish to pick up the torch today — and they are inviting those interested to meet in Westminster, on Tuesday.

The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, is a movement organize across 37 states, including Maryland, according to Shirley Eatmon, a member of the coordinating committee of the Maryland Poor People's Campaign. It's a movement that picks up where King left off.

"He saw what we called the three evils of oppression: poverty, systemic racism and the war economy of that time," Eatmon said. "And 50 years later we are still seeing those as key issues."

But the new campaign also looks at how environmental issues have come to the fore as well, according to the Rev. Amy Williams Clark, the minister at Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalist Church, in Finksburg, where Eatman is also a member. Locally, the campaign has been meeting with activists and clergy to "think about and put a theological and moral grounding to the idea that we have that interlocking evils of racism, poverty, militarism and ecological devastation," Clark said.

The movement's goals, found at www.poorpeoplescampaign.org under the "demands" tab include a guaranteed income, an end to mountaintop removal coal mining and an end to privatization of water utilities and a transfer of Pentagon funds to the Veterans Administration, education and other needs.

This year, the annual commemoration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will take place on Jan. 15. He is perhaps best recognized for his “I have a dream” speech, which he delivered in front of 250,000 on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963.

Beginning May 13, the Poor People's Campaign plans six weeks of "nonviolent, direct moral action," and civil disobedience focused in Annapolis, according to Eatmon, with the goal of drawing attention to these demands.

And "direct action is an important term," added Clark, who noted that while there will be acts of civil disobedience, there will also be testimony from those affected by, say, poverty and racism, and art projects and other forms of rallying.

"Many of us have many reasons why we do not do civil disobedience," she said, "and it is not a requirement to do civil disobedience."


Eatmon said she is aware that these methods, and these demands, may seem foreign to many people, especially in Carroll County.

"What the current Poor People's Campaign is doing is, yes, radical," Eatmon acknowledges, "but it is also drawing attention to something that is a huge issue in our country."

That people working a full-time job do not earn a living wage, and that children growing up in poor neighborhoods are still being exposed to lead paint, or lead in their drinking water, is wrong, she said.

"It's not about politically being left or right," Eatmon said. "Its about being morally right or wrong."

That moral dimension, and a feeling of duty to change the moral narrative around poverty issues, is what Clark said drew her to social justice work in Baltimore City, but she said those issues are not the sole province of urban areas.

"These are not only big city issues, they are issues that are right here. In Carroll County, we have issues of poverty, we have issues of homelessness ," she said. "Being a rural area, farmers can very much tell us how the environment has impacted farming. My goal in Carroll County is to get these ideas out there and to change the moral narrative, the discussion."


Tuesday's "Mass Meeting" will be held at 7 p.m. at St. Paul's United Church of Christ, 17 Bond St., Westminster, a congregation that is not linked to the Poor People's Campaign, but is sympathetic to its values, according to its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Marty Kuchma.

"I think the sort of underlying, core values of the Poor People's Campaign are absolutely consistent with a life of faith, I think, and what Christianity means and what Jesus lived for," Kuchma said. "Jesus was a radical and there is no real question about that. He lived as a homeless person, he ministered among those who were excluded and marginalized."

The meeting will be primarily to provide people with information about the campaign, and to help them decide if and at what level they may wish to become involved. Everyone is welcome, Eatman said, even those with opposing views.

"You know, it's a conversation. It's a national conversation we need to be having," she said. "Anybody is welcome to come."

No one will be expected to sign up for acts of civil disobedience, although there will be a training session for those interested following the basic information session on Tuesday, Eatmon said.

"This is just the beginning. This is going to continue on," she said. "We are doing 40 days of direct action, but there will be much more beyond that."

If you go

What: Maryland Poor People's Campaign Mass Meeting

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 24

Where: St. Paul's United Church of Christ, 17 Bond St., Westminster