Talk Given at Martin Luther King Day Poor Peoples’ Campaign Workshop at Eastern Michigan University
Name is Joe Summers. For over thirty years I’ve been the pastor of small congregation that has dedicated itself to working for social change—with much of this work focusing on mass incarceration and restorative justice.
I grew up in St. Louis Missouri and attended an integrated church during the time of segregation. When I was a child we used to slip out of church to play. One day, when I was about five or six years old, the older youth were playing tag when one of the youth, Clanton, ran out into the street to keep from being tagged and was hit by a car. There was a prominent hospital within a few blocks of the church that would neither treat Clanton nor provide an ambulance to take him to the county hospital some thirteen miles away. Clanton bled to death in the back of our choir director’s car. That broke the heart of our community. This mean that when Martin Luther King came along, preaching his vision of the beloved community, the community that knows it is beloved and fights that others would know their belovedness– our church responded. I believe we sent three to four buses of people to Selma including many of the High School youth like my sister.
Now the Civil Rights Movement taught us the world was very different than what we thought it was like. Because they were bullies and intimidating many of us were left believing that the majority of whites were hard core racists. This led me to fear that there would be an all-out race war and a massacre because I knew the whites were so well armed. Instead, we discovered that only ten or twenty percent of the white population were hard core racists. That shocked us all. It didn’t mean the other whites didn’t have issues, but it meant change was possible.
If my whole experience of the Civil Rights movement has left me a prisoner of hope—my participation in the anti-war movement in High School taught me that it is possible to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The anti-war movement was terribly important, but it lacked the guiding vision and discipline of the Civil Rights movement. The result was that as the injustice and harms were compounded and people got angrier and angrier and more and more afraid, combined with a lot of guilt, shame and self-righteousness, people turned on themselves and each other. So, for example, you see SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) at a time when millions of student were looking to it for direction, simply implode into internecine warfare.
This brings me to the new Poor Peoples Campaign. For most of the time since my childhood I’ve seen the racial and economic divide in this country continue to grow, a huge disinvestment from the public square and a turning away from the common good, all partly related to the growth of a politics that blames victims and justifies neglect and which has led to the new Jim Crow our mass incarceration nation has created.
While over this period we’ve seen some great organizing based on identity politics: race, union, gender, sexual orientation, religion, we’ve also seen how identify politics alone tends to foster a distrust that keeps people from really being able to trust and work with people outside of their identity group. The result is that we’re vulnerable to divide and conquer politics.
I believe the Poor People’s Campaign, with its vision of a moral fusion politics—that calls us to claim our identities—but also to grow beyond them, by learning to learn to care about, embrace, and work with people who are different then us, can take us to a new place.
I’ve also learned that the opportunities to really turn a country around are fairly rare and so I’m suggesting to you today, that whatever your life agenda is at the moment, you should seriously consider making the New Poor People’s campaign part of it. Many missed out on the Civil Rights movement because they were going to school, working, raising kids, and they didn’t realize what a rare opportunity it was to make a difference. I don’t think you want to miss this.
Lastly, the Poor People’s Campaign is not going to be for everyone. Most people in our different identity groups are likely to remain so distrustful and cynical they won’t be able to believe that such a movement as this is possible or even desirable. They won’t want to do the work the campaign insists we do in terms of coming to know each other across our differences and really embracing each other’s concerns.
The Poor Peoples Campaign is also insisting on some discipline that many will likely resist, but which I think is absolutely vital if we are not to going to turn on each other in the midst of our fears and anger, guilt and shame.
Lastly, I think a moral vision and an articulation of the values we have in common across all our differences—is absolutely vital– if we are going to create a movement instead of remaining stuck in our silos and be able overcome the kinds of divisions that separate us in so many different ways including the divisions between our secular and faith communities. Thank you!