Patry Lerwick, a public-school teacher in Texas, had just concluded what she termed a “grueling” school year when she logged on to the national “Moral Monday” Zoom call, hosted by the Poor People’s Campaign in support of its proposed “Third Reconstruction” resolution.
Lerwick pointed to the teenage students at her Title I school as her own impetus for backing the poverty-reducing measures the proposal enumerates. Michael, a 16-year-old student, participated in her classes largely through Zoom, and when he began missing classes, she became concerned.
“It’s easy to blame the poor,” Lerwick said of his lack of attendance. “That’s simply not true.”
The truth was, indeed, troubling: Michael and his brother were living alone with no power and water due to the ice storms that had ravaged Texas, and their mother was in ICU suffering with COVID-19, despite resisting hospitalization due to the sheer cost of the care that she feared she would (and did) require.
If already adopted, the Third Reconstruction would have provided Michael’s mother with the economic means to seek treatment sooner, as it calls for the institution of a “universal, single-payer healthcare program” and an “expansion of public health infrastructure.” The resolution’s provisions also would have ensured that Michael and his brother were not home alone, with the document criticizing the U.S.’s official poverty measure for its failure to factor in the cost and availability of childcare.
For Lerwick, the plight of Michael and his brother is only one of many results of the nationwide scourge of poverty. Organizers with the Mississippi branch of the Poor People’s Campaign agree, as nearly one-fifth of the Magnolia State lives at or below the poverty line. Another 140,000 Mississippians are presently uninsured, a reality that became even more burdensome with 319,000 cases of COVID reported in the state in a 15-month period.
‘A Scarcity of Social Consciousness’
Mississippians brought these grievances—and a solution, in the form of the Third Reconstruction resolution—to the demanding that he support the measure.
The local demonstration on June 7, 2021, coincided with the national “Moral Monday” protest intended to highlight what the protesters see as the moral failings of a Congress that presides over a nation in which 140 million citizens live at or below the poverty line. Participants in 30 states gathered in more than 50 locations, bearing copies of the document declaring that “the federal budget is a moral document that exposes the priorities and values of a nation.”
While the Third Reconstruction resolution highlights what it calls a congressional failure to elevate the poor through social programs, voting-rights expansion and the elimination of systemic racism, it also provides solutions for each of these problems, including an increase in the long-stagnant federal minimum wage, provisions to expand insurance coverage and a large-scale reduction of student debt. The plan also demands reform of the prison system of the nation that presently leads the world in the percentage of incarcerated persons.
“When you have not just the cursing of the darkness but an agenda to bring light, people can come together,” Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Rev. William J. Barber said in his opening remarks during the “Moral Monday” online event.
The Campaign—which began in the summer of 2018 as both a tribute to the unfinished civil-rights work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and as a pledge to finish that work—points to the resolution as its torch and its agenda. The document repeatedly calls for Congress to radically realign its budget in order to prioritize those 140 million impoverished Americans—who, in 15 states, constitute a quorum large enough to turn the tide of an election. Several organizers pointed out that 53 cents of every discretionary dollar goes to the Pentagon, while just 15 cents go to anti-poverty programs.
Barber called on citizens to change this government-first mentality regarding federal spending: “We don’t have a scarcity of money. We don’t have a scarcity of ideas. What we do have is a scarcity of social consciousness. … Nothing less than a Third Reconstruction which seeks to end poverty from the ground up will work.”
While the idea of a “Third Reconstruction” might seem radical, the name of the legislation itself signals that this type of governmental overhaul is not unprecedented in American life.
The Beginnings of the ‘Lost Cause’
Although the Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse in central Virginia, Col. Theodore H. Barrett mobilized 250 Union soldiers to Palmito Ranch near Brazos Santiago, Texas, over a month later, on May 12.
Thirteen hours later, 117 of his men lay dead on the tropical trail, and Barrett was forced to order a retreat. The Confederate forces hailed the day as a victory, not knowing that the war itself had been lost nearly 40 days before. The South’s desperate, defeated clinging to misguided ideas of victory—in spite of apparent defeat—would become a resounding theme in the century following the struggle that many southerners would dub the “War of Northern Aggression.”
Confederates saw themselves as victims even though Virginia secessionists fired the first shots of a four-year conflict that would leave 750,000 Americans dead in its wake in an attempt to maintain slavery and force new states to allow the inhumane institution.
After the war, the U.S. government initiated Reconstruction, which was intended to rebuild an America that offered provisions for a society without slavery and allowed Confederate states to return to the Union. During the 10-year Reconstruction, newly freed Black citizens began voting, and Mississippi’s Hiram Revels became the nation’s first Black senator—even as white terrorism in the form of the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups rose up to stop progress of newly freed enslaved Americans.
Legal victories were largely made possible through the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which respectively abolished slavery, granted citizenship and provided voting rights. But a combination of white resistance, violence and national politics ended Reconstruction before it was fully complete, essentially giving up on ideals of equality for Black southerners.
During this time, white Mississippians resorted to violence to suppress Black citizens, with a riot in Clinton, Miss., just west of Jackson in 1875, leaving 50 dead. Another white riot in Meridian, Miss., in 1871 ended with a Black man hanged from a telegraph pole and riddled with bullets, with another two Black men also killed in the riot that would leave two-thirds of the city destroyed. Such riots and massacres occurred across the state, from Scott County to Noxubee County to Vicksburg, and many others, in addition to the rise of lynchings to enforce white supremacy using extrajudicial violence in every corner of the state.
The Ku Klux Klan, the White League, the Red Shirts and many other white vigilante groups began their “reign of terror” during Reconstruction, too, using violence, threats and night-riding to terrorize 55% of the state’s population at the time.
Reconstruction Quashed, Replaced by White Supremacy
Even without the interference of Mississippi racists, federal Reconstruction did not do the good that it intended, as President Andrew Johnson rescinded Gen. William T. Sherman’s 15th Order, which had called for the redistribution of confiscated federal lands to freedmen, as white southerners were determined to not allow Black neighbors to build political power or generational wealth or have access to quality education.
White planters regained control of the land instead, ending Sherman’s notion of “forty acres and a mule” as reparations for a long-oppressed people and setting up the sharecropping system that would keep both Black people and poor whites in the South in the chokehold of poverty, with miniscule opportunity for upward mobility.
Thirteen years after Reconstruction ended with the Compromise of 1877, Mississippi would enshrine white supremacy and generational poverty into its 1890 state constitution, which put pro-segregation Jim Crow laws on the books and effectively ended Black suffrage for the next 75 years.
When white Mississippi leaders gathered to rework the 1890 Constitution, they instituted new laws to quash Black prosperity in Mississippi, requiring poll taxes and instituting “grandfather clauses” to limit the power of the Black voting bloc in Mississippi elections. Led by U.S. Sen. James Z. George, and openly saying they were working to maintain white supremacy, the constitutional delegates made it far easier to arrest and imprison Black Mississippians and permanently take away their right to vote.
Clint Smith, a Black historian and author of the recent “How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America,” lamented the brutal and unfinished end of Reconstruction, writing, “(Historians) should disabuse people of the notion that Reconstruction failed and show how state-sanctioned white terrorism killed it. ”
The Gutting of ‘The Great Society’
Nearly 80 years after the first Reconstruction ended, 14-year-old Emmett Till’s mother insisted that his casket be open for the world to see what white supremacy did to him in August 1955. Months later, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, and her quiet and defiance and training in resistance helped ignite the pursuit of the dignity-restoring work that Reconstruction had left unfinished, thus ushering in the Civil Rights Movement.
The Poor People’s Campaign and others point to the legislative fruits of the mid-century fight to end the Jim Crow provisions embedded into Mississippi’s 1890 constitution, and similarly in other southern states, as “the Second Reconstruction.”
Mississippi was often ground zero for this second attempt at a more perfect and just union, as a number of Freedom Riders did time at the Delta’s notorious Parchman Prison Farm, and the murders of Medgar Evers and Emmett Till inflamed an already-divided nation.
Eventually, the federal government responded to this earlier “poor people’s campaign,” passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlaws state-supported voting obstacles. The Lyndon Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty”—which led to the implementation of Medicare and Medicaid, education reform that included the creation of Head Starts for low-income children and the institution of the Job Corps—supplemented these restorations of human dignity.
Just like the end of the first Reconstruction, however, both federal and state law would gut much of the country’s poverty-relief legislation and other gains.
“There can be no racial justice without economic justice. Economic inequality was the unfinished business of Dr. King’s final years,” former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile remarked, citing the unfinished work of that Second Reconstruction and the need for further change. “That was why he was launching a Poor People’s Campaign for all the poor people—Black, brown and white.”
‘Poverty is State-Sanctioned Violence’
The Mississippi branch of the Poor People’s Campaign is well-acquainted with attempts to circumvent government efforts to elevate the poor: The state Legislature killed eight separate bills that would increase Mississippians’ access to health care in the 2021 session alone, while Gov. Tate Reeves axed federal pandemic unemployment benefits just a few months later.
Barber, however, reminded organizers on “Moral Monday” that the key to overturning poverty—which he called “state-sanctioned violence”—is nothing less than the passage of a third Reconstruction.
“You don’t even know what’s possible until you mobilize for it,” Barber stated, adding that “750 people a day die due to poverty, and we’ve got to put a face on these facts.”
The Poor People’s Campaign insists that bringing these very human faces to the forefront of the movement—like the faces of Michael and his brother, who waited out the tide of COVID in a cold apartment—is the key to the ultimate passage of the Third Reconstruction resolution, which they believe can end the suffering caused by ongoing poverty and by a pair of attempts at Reconstruction that were eventually neutered by state-sanctioned racism.
At the conclusion of the “Moral Monday” event, a choir gave modern verse to the age-old American problem that the Poor People’s Campaign claims that the third and final Reconstruction seeks to remedy.
“Ain’t no Congress gonna turn me around,” they sang.