MLK’s Mantle in 2018: Barber, Theoharis, and Strategy for the Poor People’s Campaign


Correction: The date of the culminating march in Washington, D.C. is June 23rd.

Senior Editor Chris Iosso

Some heroes don’t wear capes. Instead of flight or invisibility, the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr. gives one more grounding and visibility. But sometimes that visibility can be deceptive: along with many earnest people seeking to follow the example of past leadership, some rather selective disciples downplay MLK’s radicalism and seem to forget that MLK’s mantle always had a target painted on it. The legacy of MLK, and of the civil rights movement as a whole, is a continued calling to force the issues of racial and economic justice which are still inextricable in America, 153 years after the end of slavery.

Unlike the prophet Elijah’s mantle, directly given to his disciple Elisha, MLK’s mantle was passed first to the generation of talented Black ministers who had worked with King: Fred Shuttlesworth, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson are among the best known, though 60 ministers were with King when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was founded, January 10-11, 1957. Ralph David Abernathy[1] helped run the SCLC from the start, and was King’s organizational successor.

By Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer. 
This image is available from the
United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and
Photographs division
under the digital ID

After King’s death, fifty years ago this April 4th, Abernathy continued the Poor People’s Campaign through the Charleston Sanitation Workers Strike of 1969, but the Campaign folded soon after. Without King’s charisma and strategic sense, and in a changing public climate, politically identifying the civil rights struggle with economic and labor struggles was a very heavy lift. Systemic injustices are hard to target tactically, and require coalitions to force movement.

Ministers William Barber and Liz Theoharis, in calling for a moral revival, claim not only the mantle of King but the also strategy of a Poor People’s Campaign. Starting officially on Mothers’ Day (May 13), the plan is to have waves of nonviolent civil disobedience for six weeks in at least 25 state capitals, culminating in a large demonstration in Washington, DC, on June 23rd. Each of the weeks will lift up a different major concern and presumably rally a specific constituency.

Barber and Theoharis are activist minister scholars. Barber is better-known from the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina, which he led as head of that state’s NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an historic group dedicated to equal rights for African Americans). That campaign contributed both to the election of a Democratic governor and to a recently sustained legal challenge to state gerrymandering (which has helped lead to a well-funded conservative dominance of that state’s legislature and congressional delegation).

Theoharis has been developing ideas for a new Poor People’s Campaign for some years, working with the Poverty Initiative at Union Seminary (NY) and learning from the Fair Food Campaign and other movements organizing working people. Both ministers are familiar also with the research by Gerald McKnight and others on how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI steadily sabotaged the original Poor People’s Campaign, both before and after King’s death.


As Jim Wallis has succinctly said, many “Evangelicals” have exchanged their Christianity for the worship of whiteness. The President’s recent reference to various non-white countries as
“s—holes” underlines this racism.

Barber and Theoharis represent two key parts of the old Civil Rights coalition: the Black Churches and the Mainline Protestant Churches. More than that, they raise the cross of King’s martyrdom and the meaning of Christianity at a very crucial time. In this past year, self-designated ‘Evangelicals,” have knelt before the golden-haired calf in the White House, and supported the candidacy of Roy Moore in Alabama; voting 4 to 1 for both men, despite evidence of massive character disorders. As Jim Wallis has succinctly said, many “Evangelicals” have exchanged their Christianity for the worship of whiteness. The President’s recent reference to various non-white countries as “s—holes” underlines this racism (evidently shared by about 1/3 of the US population, who have continued to support him despite repeated articulations of this theme).

Barber and Theoharis call for an inclusive moral revival, not an exclusionary crusade, and racism and poverty are not their only concerns. They write in Time magazine:[2]

Over the last five decades, economic inequality has soared; it was recently revealed that three people control the same amount of wealth as half of the U.S. population and 44% of Americans are poor or low-income. We have fewer voting rights than we did since the Selma to Montgomery march as voter suppression laws have been enacted in 22 states.

Further, they underline very broad concerns related to the overall moral decay of the country:

This campaign is not about a single party or policy agenda. It’s about “saving the soul of America” by challenging the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and our distorted national morality. These forces have been tearing apart America’s moral fabric long before President Donald Trump’s election last year.

Barber and Theoharis are claiming the moral high ground and also the theological high ground. They list five enmeshed evils, or four plus a distorted spiritual dimension. But to help our country find its soul means that the church has to clean up its own act. This revival means challenging, if not draining, the theological swamp of modern, ideological “Evangelicalism.”


To help our country find its soul means that the church has to clean up its own act. This revival means challenging, if not draining, the theological swamp of modern, ideological “Evangelicalism.”

This will not be an easy job, as evidenced by the experience of former Evangelical David Gushee. He sought to move his Baptist and Evangelical community on a range of issues See his In the Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013. Then, with Changing our Mind (2014), where he described his changing view of homosexuality in particular, he was attacked by many conservative Evangelicals. The depth of these attacks—also in response to his 2016 A Letter To My Anxious Christian Friends: From Fear To Faith In Unsettled Times—helped lead him to leave the conservative Evangelical fold entirely.

Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today, has been widely quoted saying that the clear loser in the Alabama Senate race with Roy Moore was: “Christian faith…Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.” Further in his editorial,[3] however, Galli accuses moderate and progressive Christians of hypocrisy for lumping all Evangelicals with a “cabal of noisy conservatives,” without giving fair-minded attention to the prudential reasons the Evangelical majority votes for flawed candidates.


Making excuses for racism, sexism, or economic injustice is not a biblical value.

This is why it is crucial that anything called a “poor people’s campaign” poses first a Biblical test, and only secondarily a political one. We are not talking about the moral frailties of individuals, but whether the priorities of Jesus are going to get support—and care for the poor is a pretty big one. Healing the sick is up there, too…and not just those who can pay! Making excuses for racism, sexism, or economic injustice is not a biblical value.

But Galli is right to raise the prudential question: how do we bring Christian principles into an inherently gray (or purple) political landscape? The renewed Poor People’s Campaign[4] seeks to unite a broad coalition of the poor and others seeking change, and to unite them partly by recalling the clear message and relative success of the Civil Rights movement.

We at Unbound invite our readers to read the reasoning of Barber, Theoharis, and their associates in the Campaign. Additionally, we support the biblical principles upon which their Campaign is based. You can read about these principles in William J. Barber’s, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear (2016) and in Elizabeth Theoharis’, Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor (2017).[5]


This is partly the perennial question of how the motivation of love can be combined with the critical eye of justice.

Given general agreement on goals and appreciation for the leaders’ scholarly preparation, the question prudence asks is whether the goals are tied clearly to “asks,” and not only to the heroic acts of civil disobedience. Is the approach of a revival the best approach to sharpening choices for masses of voters? This is partly the perennial question of how the motivation of love can be combined with the critical eye of justice.

Professor Joseph Pettit of Morgan State University in Baltimore has written a paper raising strategy questions for the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. As a former organizer with Protestants for the Common Good in Chicago, he lifts up what he calls the “boring political virtues of incrementalism, focus, restraint, diligence, and persistence [that] are essential to pursuing successfully the more oft-mentioned virtue of justice.”

Pettit supports the ends of the Campaign, but wants more attention to the means. Justice is not simply to be an ideal but a virtue to be achieved. He maintains that MLK used incremental methods in the SCLC direct action campaigns. He urges focus in picking battles that will advance the larger cause, and restraint in avoiding other battles (which might be tricky debates that could be dismissed as “correctness” or cultural identity issues that may divide people into separate narratives).

Claiming the high moral and theological ground does entail being willing to suffer jail or worse, but prudence is still a virtue, as well as diligence and persistence. Pettit’s “boring virtues” may argue for shorter term win-able concerns that contribute to the change of overall narrative that is desired.

Meanwhile, we welcome hearing that the Institute for Policy Studies is involved in researching the issues raised by the Poor People’s Campaign and has already done an initial survey Yet, will poor people respond to the new campaign? What about people who do not see themselves as “poor?” Will the moral voice of the campaign cross-over to economically disenfranchised white rural voters? How will the campaign deal with electoral politics, and the effort to politicize the role of churches by specific candidate endorsements?

Whatever happens, denominations, pastors, and congregations will have a key role to play in determining how and whether the Campaign is heard and acted upon.


Author Bio: Chris Iosso is Senior Editor of Unbound and a minister in the PCUSA. He has served as a pastor and as an ethicist staffing the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. In Palestine at the time of President Trump’s announcement, he is always moved by the strength of those who endure occupation and the courage of those of all faiths who work for peace.

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