Organizing the Rich or the Poor?Roundup
tags: poverty, inequality, social movements, National Welfare Rights Organization
Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor. She teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
This society has long suffered from a kind of Stockholm syndrome: we look to the rich for answers to the very problems they are often responsible for creating and from which they benefit. The wreckage of this pandemic moment is a bitter reminder of this affliction, as well as a signpost suggesting how we must emerge from this crisis a just and more equitable nation. With a possible depression ahead and more social unrest on the rise, isn’t it time to stop vindicating the wealthiest people in this country and look instead to leadership from those who were living in a depression before Covid-19 even hit and already organizing and protesting?
Here’s a story from a long-ago moment that's still relevant. Two months before his assassination in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., travelled to Chicago, to enlist the women of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) -- the predecessor to the National Union of my day -- into the Poor People’s Campaign. As he walked into a conference room at a downtown Chicago YMCA, Dr. King encountered more than 30 welfare rights leaders seated strategically on the other side of an exceedingly large table. One of his advisers later noted that the women’s reception of the southern civil rights leader was a “grand piece of psychological warfare.”
Representing more than 30,000 welfare-receiving, dues-paying members, they had not come to passively listen to the famed leader. They wanted to know his position on the recent passage of anti-welfare legislation and quickly made that clear, pelting him with questions. Dr. King felt out of his element. Eventually, Johnnie Tillmon, the national chairwoman of the NWRO, stepped in. “You know, Dr. King,” she said, “if you don’t know about these questions, you should just say you don’t know and then we could go on with this meeting.”
To this, Dr. King replied, “We don’t know anything about welfare. We are here to learn.”
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