Interview with Colleen Wessel-McCoy on her recent book, Freedom Church of the Poor: Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign
Why “Freedom Church of the Poor: Martin Luther King Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign” and why now?
The line “freedom church of the poor” comes from a radio lecture King gave in late 1967, just a few months before his assassination. He described - politically and theologically - why the SCLC were making plans to organize poor people in a campaign for “jobs or income,” and that like poverty in the U.S., their campaign would include poor people who were Black, white, Mexican-American, and indigenous. He argued poor people were the only social force capable of taking on the structurally enmeshed “triple evils” of systemic racism, poverty, and war. The longer passage included “non-violent army of the poor” and “a new and unsettling force” as descriptions of the moral and political significance of the poor organizing to demand their rights.
In the introduction, I spend some time exploring economic, social, and political conditions today. We are experiencing an escalation and intensification of the triple evils they targeted in 1968, compounded by an environmental crisis. Mass incarceration, widespread evictions and homelessness, poverty wages and exploitative working conditions, militarism domestically and internationally, and shocking disparities of health and health care all converge to push increasing numbers of us into destitution and destabilize the economy with untenable inequality. The vision for a campaign of the poor to unsettle and move the nation to meet their human rights continues to be highly relevant.
What is the underlying heart of this book? If you were in an elevator telling someone about it, what would you tell them to get them hooked?
When King talks about a “freedom church of the poor” he is echoing the religious traditions of the abolitionist movement that ended slavery in the U.S. King was talking about change on that scale–requiring a social movement of that scale–to fundamentally change the social and economic structure of the nation. He was assassinated when he began pulling leaders together around that idea, connecting poor people from poor communities across significant lines of division, especially systemic racism.
Jesse Jackson, who became mayor of Resurrection City, the Poor People’s Campaign tent encampment on the National Mall in 1968, wrote candidly about the challenges that came with those diverse communities, including poor whites, coming together around shared demands. His article in Ebony spoke to both the accomplishments of the campaign–because there were some significant policy accomplishments–and also the opportunities they couldn’t handle at that time, like King’s political and theological vision for a campaign of poor people being what initiates a broad human rights movement to end racism, poverty, and war.
I’m curious to know what in your life shaped you and led you up to being interested and able to write this work?
For decades poor people have been organizing in the spirit of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Groups like the National Union of the Homeless, National Welfare Rights Union, and United Workers of Baltimore City have studied the lessons of that period and passed it to other leaders. When I arrived at seminary, I met welfare rights activists Willie Baptist and Liz Theoharis who introduced whole cohorts of seminarians to poor-led grassroots organizing across the country and we started getting involved, including studying King. This book is in many ways about how and why that history has been taken up and reignited.
Who do you hope will read this book and what do you hope that people will take away from it?
I hope there’s something here for lots of different readers and reading groups. There are lessons here for community leaders engaged in organizing. There are sections on King’s theological ethics. And there’s a chapter about those who are organizing in the theological and political vision of the Poor People’s Campaign today.
Also, the book is expensive, so I’m asking people to request that their library buy a copy. Many libraries have an online form or email address where you can recommend books for purchase.
Can you tell us a little about the idea of “Movement as Church?” that you write about?
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which if you remember was a response to a statement by prominent Alabama clergy (we’re talking bishops of all the major denominations, not fringe), King said too often the church has been a tail light instead of a headlight. This tendency of organized religion to be on the wrong side of history, to join and sanctify the established powers of exploitation and oppression, has not extinguished the spirit of the church that follows the call to set free the captives and preach the good news of the poor, proclaiming the kingdom of God on Earth as in Heaven. But across history that church tradition that clings to the Gospel is pushed outside the walls of the established church and into the streets. King described this movement as the true church. In the cycle of history, the motion of the movement church forces a reckoning in the established church. This is what happened when almost all of the major Protestant denominations split over the question of slavery.
And finally, what does it mean to be the Freedom Church of the Poor today? What is it and who can be a part of it?
Like the original freedom churches of the abolitionist movement, the freedom church of the poor is happening in many places in big and small ways. It includes a congregation I’m part of called Freedom Church of the Poor and La Iglesia del Pueblo, that meets Sundays on Facebook Live. Along the “movement as church” lines, today’s freedom church of the poor includes the outbreaking movement of those who are impacted by systemic racism, poverty, and militarism, like Fed Up North Carolina, Fight for $15, the Nonviolent Medicaid Army (and it’s echo of King’s reference to the non-violent army of the poor), the National Union of the Homeless, National Welfare Rights Union, and Union de Vicinos. And it also includes the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival
. That campaign has drawn together people of many faiths and people who are moral but don’t identify as religious in almost every state. It’s easy to step into their regular gatherings in the freedom church tradition. The big march they’re planning for June 18, 2022
, will in many ways be what King was talking about when he called for a freedom church of the poor to converge in the nation’s capitol in 1968 (RSVP for June 18 here
Where can we get the Book?