The Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival

A short history of when we cared about the poor.

In January, 1964, with the national poverty rate hovering at 20%, President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed in his State of the Union Address a “War on Poverty.”

“This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join me in that effort.”

The signing of the Voting Rights Act

The signing of the Voting Rights Act

To begin minimizing poverty levels, Johnson sought to expand government’s role in education and health care. (Editorial point: Invest in Education and Health Care?!)

Congress, in response to this call to action, passed the Economic Opportunity Act. Headstart, Vista, and Job Corps are all EOA legacies. This was part of Johnson’s Great Society program, which sought to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. The Great Society extended from Kennedy’s New Frontier, which was rooted in Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicaid and Medicare, are all legacies of the Great Society. Johnson passed all these social programs with the help of the 1964 Congress, which, because of an epic blue wave, was the most liberal House of Representatives since 1938.

Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King

Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King

And yet, by 1968, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw the Vietnam war as the enemy of the poor, siphoning away not just America’s poorest men but its richest resources, undermining that War on Poverty. King, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, called for the poor - all the poor, across races - to come to Washington by mule cart, old trucks, anyway they could, to fill the streets. He urged them to declare, “we are here. We are poor. We don't have any money. You have made us this way...and we've come to stay until you do something about it.”

That 1968 spring, King presented Congress with a set of demands, and then 3,000 marchers from the freshly baptized “Poor People’s Campaign” pitched tents on the Washington Mall. They stayed for six weeks.

In response to those poor campers, the Federal government activated 20,000 U.S. troops. The FBI launched its own initiative, an effort to undermine the Poor People’s Campaign, which they had secretly coded “POCAM.” It created the Ghetto Informant Program or GIF, and planted moles in the Poor People’s meetings. The FBI seeded news stories pitting the Quaker movement against the Poor People’s Campaign, hoping to make enemies out of what the agency saw as a powerful alliance of - friends.

Poor Peoples March, Lafayette-Park DC

Poor Peoples March, Lafayette-Park DC

African Americans in mule carts. Ministers in robes. Singers of hymns. These were suddenly seen as the enemies of - in the climate of Vietnam protests - an increasingly paranoid state. King foreshadowed this in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech a year earlier, saying then, “if we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.”

The “Beyond Vietnam” speech is important. It inflamed the FBI’s views of King as a radical political threat, but it also sowed the seeds of the Poor People’s Campaign. In that speech King questioned the morality of sending poor African American boys 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia that they did not hold in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. In that speech King states, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death...Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.’”

The Relaunch

Fifty years later, activist ministers Reverend William Barber II and Reverend Liz Theoharris have plumbed King’s speech and intentions; they have re-inaugurated The Poor People’s Campaign, because fifty years later we still live with these crises. This past May, “The Poor People’s Campaign, a National Call For Moral Revival,” initiated a new revolutionary spirit, a nation-wide forty-day call to action vowing to challenge the linked arms of racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological destruction, and the nation’s distorted morality. The Campaign is being led by the poor and those hit hardest by poverty.  Faith leaders, along with labour leaders and people of good will, are helping to support this work.  

Poor People’s Campaign

Poor People’s Campaign

Just a few months earlier, in December, 2017, the United Nations had released a report on the state of poverty in the United States, recognizing the relative inaction of the past fifty years but also targeting the most recent efforts by the Republican Congress and President to repeal the Affordable Care Act and successfully pass the Tax Bill.

“For almost five decades the overall policy response has been neglectful at best,” the report says, “but the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.”

The United Nations report offers these statistics:

  • 40 million Americans live in poverty; 18.5 million live in extreme poverty; and 5.3 million Americans live in “Third World conditions of absolute poverty.”

  • “In 2016, 18% of children (13.3 million) were living in poverty, and children comprised 32.6% of all people in poverty.”

  • In terms of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states, the U.S. has the highest youth poverty rate and the highest infant mortality rate.

  • On a given night in 2017, about 21 per cent (or 114,829) of homeless individuals were children.

  • The share of the top 1% of the population in the United States has grown steadily in recent years. In 2016 they owned 38.6% of total wealth.

Reverend Vernon K. Walker

The Reverend Vernon K. Walker

The Reverend Vernon K. Walker

I first witnessed the Reverend Vernon K. Walker, associate pastor at the Berachah Church, a nondenominational congregation in Boston, preaching from the bottom steps of the Massachusetts State House. “Oh, when the saints, come marching in…” and “This little light of mine…” sounded into the air above Beacon St. as a small marching band escorted a semi-jubilant, sign-waving flock to the State House steps, day one of the forty-day Poor People’s Campaign. Walker, wearing a long, royal-blue coat, his very tall frame easily commanding the scene, stepped forward with a microphone. The shining dome of the State House rose up behind him, and early-spring azure skies above that. He preached to a gathered crowd: “It’s time for a change. It’s time for a change in values. It’s time for the people to get together and demand change. And change shall come when the people of good will get together, stick together, talk together, walk together. Let us pray.”

“The Poor People’s Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival” is represented in thirty-nine states and Washington, D.C. Reverend Vernon K. Walker is one of the leaders in the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign. I met with Walker recently at the Democracy Center in Cambridge, MA. He seemed younger - and even taller - without his robe. His gentle voice tended to move back and forth from Boston University grad student, which he once was, to a minister’s plaintive intonation. We started talking about Walker’s childhood.

“Well essentially I grew up non-religious. I grew up in the west side of Philadelphia in the Mill Creek projects. This was a marginalized, impoverished community not too far from the University of Pennsylvania. My neighborhood is famous - unfortunately - for the Lex Street massacre.”

In December of 2000 ten people were shot, execution style, in a Philadelphia crack house. Seven died. Four people were immediately arrested and convicted of the crime, until a year later new evidence proved them innocent, and another four people were convicted.

When Walker was a young teen, his mother moved her son and daughter to another low income neighborhood in South Philadelphia, where Walker for the first time interacted “with people who were not people of color, with Caucasian brothers and sisters.” More importantly Walker began to visit the Deliverance Evangelistic Church.

“I still have a great relationship with Deliverance Evangelistic Church in the heart of North Philadelphia. I began to visit this church and I began to like what they were talking. They were talking some stuff that I heard - they were talking some good news. And that's what the gospel is - good news. Good news for the poor, in fact that's what Jesus said. He said that the spirit of the Lord is upon me, and not at me, to preach the gospel to the poor to bring the good news to the poor.”

Walker became more and more involved, and entered the church’s discipleship program. He graduated from Penn State University, then Boston University with a Masters Degrees in Theology. At Penn State, Walker had immersed himself in the life, work, and philosophy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., becoming intimate with the “Beyond Vietnam” speech (which Walker encourages everyone to listen to again, as it still resonates with painful clarity) and the original Poor People’s Campaign. With the 2017 relaunch of the “Poor People’s Campaign, a National Call for Moral Revival” Walker saw an opportunity to galvanize his work with the poor.

“I've had a career so far working with the poor and the marginalized and the disenfranchised, and I know how damaging and crippling poverty can be - holistically on individuals, emotionally socially, and psychologically. So when the relaunch of the poor people's campaign happened, from the original poor people's campaign in 1967 with Dr. King, where he focused on militarism, poverty, and racism, I was just drawn to it.”

The Poor People’s Campaign began their forty days of action right after Mother's Day and ended in mid June. There were protests and rallies across the country being led by the poor and the poor empathic, connecting with religious leaders, with moral leaders, with labor rights movement leaders. The Poor People’s Campaign, Walker explained, secures strength as a “fusion movement,” a movement like the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements made up of disparate groups with a common moral compass. Walker said that many have gotten arrested, “because someone is hurting our brothers, and someone is hurting our sisters, and we won't be silent about it anymore.” Dr. King, Walker reminded me, tells us in the “Beyond Vietnam” speech, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

Reverend Barber and Al Gore in Stokes County, NC

Reverend Barber and Al Gore in Stokes County, NC

Social justice and environmental justice are impossible to separate today; the relaunched Poor People’s Campaign has therefore added “Ecological Destruction” to its platform. Walker says, “the communities that are disproportionately being affected by toxic waste are economically poor communities and predominantly people of color.”

A symbol of that fusion movement, in August this year, Reverend Barber, former Vice President Al Gore and his daughter Karenna Gore together toured Stokes Country in rural North Carolina, a poor community with a high cancer rate and high incidences of asthma and neurological problems, which many attribute to coal ash from a nearby power plant.

The Distorted Moral Narrative

The Poor People’s Campaign platform contests that the moral conversation in this country has been “distorted,” a distortion that obstructs the opportunity for conversations around race and poverty. Walker and the Poor People’s Campaign attribute that distortion to the religious right.

“So we have the religious right, who are a lot of conservative evangelicals who have endorsed Trump's foolishness. Their distorted moral narrative puts the focus on abortion, prayer in the school, and gun rights. It distorts because they mention nothing about the poor. Jesus opened a ministry. His opening declaration was, ‘the spirit of the lord is upon me and has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.’ He tells the folks in a synagogue that he has come to set liberty to those who are bruised, to set sight to those who are blind, to set free those who are captive.”

Subtracting gospel lessons of compassion, of humanity, of hope, the religious right has reduced and confined the national moral discussion in America to a three-point pitch: prayer in the school, abortion and guns.

I asked Walker what phase two is for the Poor People’s Campaign. “Get out the vote,” he said.

“We're going into areas that are hit hardest by poverty. Here in Boston we've been door knocking and canvassing in Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan. We’ll recruit more people who are impacted greatest by poverty and getting them to sign up to vote because we believe our voice is our vote. The only way to get xenophobia out of office is to vote. The only way to get racism out of office, the only way to get sexism out of office, is to vote them out.”

Walker cited Dr. King again, describing the importance of developing relationships with people in public office and developing support for a Poor People’s legislative agenda.

“Dr. King had a great quote that said that we're all tied into the government. ‘The inescapable garment of mutuality.’ What affects one directly affects all, indirectly. He said I can't be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and then when you are what you ought to be then I can be what I ought to be.”

“We're not Democrats we're not Republicans,” Walker said, “but we see ourselves as the moral center being able to challenge both Democrats and Republicans when their values don't reflect helping to uplift the poor, when policies are not created to help uplift the poor and the marginalized.”

Buttermilk Sweet Potato Pie for Mrs. Walker

Because I think recipes sometimes help tell the story, we call this the “Eat” section of the Midpod, and we include as many recipes as we can. Without diminishing the gravity of the Poor People’s Campaign, I asked Walker if he would share a family recipe. He spoke to his mother, who sent me a delicious recipe for Sweet Potato Pie. The only problem was her recipe was a little too close to Glennette Tilley Turner’s Sweet Potato Casserole a few blogs back. So, I proposed to Walker that I find an updated Sweet Potato Pie recipe, and share it with his mother.

This is a recipe for Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie. That intense sweet potato is balanced with lemon and buttermilk. Fluffed with separately beaten egg yolks and whites, this is as light as a cloud. Tuck this recipe away for Thanksgiving. Even better, make it on Election Night, November 6th. Mrs. Walker, I hope you approve.

Makes 1 9” pie with a bottom crust

Pie Crust:

Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie

Sweet Potato Buttermilk Pie

This is my recipe for a two crust pie dough. Use ⅔ of the dough for this bottom crust, and consider yourself lucky to have a small pie dough ready in your freezer.


2 cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

12 tablespoons very cold butter, cut into 12 chunks

1 glass measuring cup with ice, water and 2 teaspoons cider vinegar in it. From that, use 6 tablespoons of the very cold water.


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, pulse together the flour, salt, and sugar. Add butter, and pulse until the flour looks like thick sand. Add ice water 1 tablespoon at a time, pulsing. Pulse until all comes together into a ball.

Remove ball from processor and set on a floured surface. Divide dough into ⅔ and ⅓. Shape each section into a thick disk, wrap in saran wrap, and chill. (You will only be using the ⅔ dough. Freeze the smaller portion if not using.)

Allow the other dough to chill for 15 minutes. Then roll out to fit into a 9” pie dish or pan. Trim and crimp the edges attractively. Lay parchment paper gently on the crust and fill with beans or weights so the crust doesn’t bubble while baking.

Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and set on rack to cool.

For the Filling:


2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 ½ pounds)

4 tablespoons unsalted melted butter

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

½ teaspoon grated nutmeg

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

3 eggs, separated

½ cup sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

¾ cup buttermilk


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Peel sweet potatoes and cut into roughly ¼ “ slices. Set a vegetable steamer into a stockpot, and fill with 2” of water. Lay the sweet potato slices down in the strainer, and steam the vegetables (with a lid on) until tender, about 20 minutes. Allow to cool.

When relatively cool, remove the sweet potato slices to a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Take out the sweet potato mixture and measure it in a glass measuring cup. Reserve 1 ¼ cups, and add that to a mixing bowl. (You don’t need whatever is left.) Add to the bowl the butter, lemon juice, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt. Process until smooth.

Sweet potato buttermilk pie

Sweet potato buttermilk pie

Meanwhile, put the egg yolks and sugar in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Blend at medium speed for about 2 minutes, or until light and lemon-colored. Fold the egg mixture into the sweet potatoes. Add the flour a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add the buttermilk, and fold in completely.

Wash the mixer, or use a separate whisk, and beat the egg whites to soft peaks, about 2 minutes in a mixer. Fold those into the sweet potato mixture. Turn all out into the pie shell, and place on the middle rack of the oven. Bake for 40 minutes, or until the center is no longer jiggly. Cool on a rack completely. To store, wrap well in saran wrap and keep in refrigerator. Serve at room temperature, or chilled, with a dollop of whipped cream.

Eunice Panetta