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The Poor People’s Campaign and the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize: A national call for a moral revival

Philip Lederer

The mass meeting at Boston’s historic Trinity Church on Oct. 19 was packed with men, women, and children, rich and poor, of all races and ethnicities.

The jazz band warmed up, a piano, bass guitar, and drums. And we sang, call and response:

Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom

I said I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom

Well I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom

Hallelu, hallelu, Hallelu, Hallelu, hallelujah

The moral revival signaled the kickoff of a modern civil rights movement and launch of a new Poor People’s Campaign. We were revitalizing what the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had started before his assassination.

In the 1960s, Dr. King had surprised many by adding opposition to the Vietnam War to the civil rights campaign he was leading. The same linkage of struggle on behalf of the poor, with opposition to militarism, is now a logical path.

Reverends Liz Theoharis and William J. Barber II, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign, took the stage at Trinity Church and both spoke with a prophetic fire. We must challenge systemic racism, poverty, voter suppression, environmental destruction, and militarism, they argued. Wars increase social upheaval and hurt the poor. Instead, invest in schools, affordable housing, job training, and healthcare for all.

But how to finance the Poor People’s Campaign?

The answer is simple.

The Costs of War project at Brown University documented that the U.S. federal government has spent or obligated $4.8 trillion on wars in the Middle East. Most Americans are not aware of that enormous waste of money and human lives. Professor Andrew Bacevich has argued that our military is on autopilot and these foreign wars are not putting Americans first.

But what part of the military budget should be cut first?

Nuclear weapons.

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded on Oct. 6 to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations in more than 100 countries. ICAN received the Nobel Prize for their work supporting a new nuclear ban treaty.

I am a practicing doctor, and my organization, Physicians for Social Responsibility, emphasizes the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. Health professionals argue that the complete abolition of nuclear weapons is the only cure to the grave threat that these weapons represent.

How much money would the adoption of the nuclear ban treaty save? America’s annual expenditure on nuclear weapons is approximately $60 billion. That money could help fix our struggling schools and broken social safety net.

A grassroots nonviolent protest movement linking the Poor People’s Campaign and abolition of nuclear weapons is desperately needed. Such a movement should be led by the poor and working class. In the 1960s, Ella Baker, co-founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, stated, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

At Trinity Church, Reverend Barber brought us to our feet, with the words of Amos 5:16. Go out into the streets and lament loudly. Get everyone who is willing to fill up the malls and shops with cries of doom. Empty the stores, offices, workplaces, and enlist everybody in a general cry. When I hear you crying in the streets, then I’ll help you.