By Bill Wylie-Kellermann
There are a number of sweet connections between Word and World and the Poor Peoples Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. As the campaign heats up in the midst of these 40 days of action and witness, it’s worth remembering a few of them.
In 2003, we did one off our Peoples’ Schools, a week-long institute in Philadelphia. It was framed around a close study of Dr. King’s Riverside Church speech, “Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence” which focused his national call for a “revolution of values.” In addition to the Plowshares Movement, that school included attention to the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philly, specifically their homeless union tent city which subsequently, as winter approached, broke open and moved into a boarded up Catholic Church, St. Edwards.
Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the PPC, remembers being at that school. I don’t believe she was on the panel recounting the dramas of the occupation, but she was in the thick of those events having fallen in with KWRU as a college student. By her accounting in Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor, those were seminal days in her journey toward the current Campaign. Shane Claiborne was also part of that school, then in a circus and fire-breathing mode. He was among the Eastern University students who had come to join the church occupation, claiming that “Jesus was being evicted by the arch-diocese,” and seeding the formation of their own community in Philadelphia.
Another Word and World week-long school was hosted in Tar Heel, North Carolina in 2007. Tar Heel is home to the largest hog processing plant in the world and its workers, largely Brown and Black, were organizing against unsafe conditions and back-breaking abuse. They told their stories amidst bible studies, like Isaiah crying out: “Why do you grind the face of the poor?” The school included a large evening service at which Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP, preached. There followed an action at the Smithfield Plant in support of the workers at which he also spoke, shining the light of media on the whole operation. It was also in connection with this school that Nelson Johnson facilitated a meeting between Baldemar Velasquez, a Pentecost preacher heading up the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and just then beginning an effort to organize tobacco workers in the state, with Barber and a cohort of Black preachers. Another decisive encounter, and a station on the way to the current moral revival.
Rev. Barber is the other co-chair of the Poor Peoples Campaign and he recounts these events in The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Revival is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. “The Reverend Nelson Johnson, who had been helping the workers, helped us to see that this was the perfect case for us to change the narrative by making the workers’ struggle a moral cause…” The partnership of Johnson and Barber is important in the eventual development of the Moral Monday’s Movement, the campaign of weekly direct actions at the Durham statehouse which has also become a model for the actions of these forty days.
To say more, Nelson and Joyce Johnson were co-founders of Word and World, hosting our first school in Greensboro, NC. They had been brooding on how to counter the “southern strategy” which employed white racism as a key to capturing the block of states in the south and so controlling the house, the senate, and even the presidency. The Tar Heel school and protest were a collaboration with the Southern Faith, Labor, and Community Alliance formed with just that countervailing intent. It had been founded and launched the previous year at a Word and World in Memphis TN – which of course drew heavily on the 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign expressed in SCLC’s presence and support for the sanitation workers strike – a movement for racial justice fused completely with a labor struggle for economic justice. Needless to say, it was this expression of the 1968 PPC which upped the targeting of Martin Luther King, Jr. for state assassination in Memphis. Even now those events inspire and resurrect in the new Poor Peoples Campaign.
Moreover, the latter shares the Johnson conception of countering the southern strategy. The campaign also began by soliciting all of the states in the south to engage in the season of weekly direct actions. The others of the original 25 were selected on the basis of voter suppression law, clarifying an underlying electoral intention.
It’s been the purpose and intent of Word and World from the beginning to bring its fusion of the seminary, the sanctuary, and the streets to bear in support of movement struggles. It makes the heart glad to think we may have helped nourish the current moral revival.