Review and Reflection on “Freedom Church of the Poor” by Colleen Wessel-McCoy

This is a book I’ve had on my radar for some time. But I often held off on getting because of the price – it’s an expensive soft cover book coming in around $75. I’m not sure why it costs that much, but that’s been the going rate for the book. 

Having said that, the book is a good book, especially if you are interested in Martin Luther King, Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign. This book is really a look at the history and impact of the campaign, with a lot of in-depth analysis of the campaign, the people involved, and the strategy and methods that were employed. 

What is the foundation of the Poor People’s Campaign? It was really based on what King said about the coming era, “We must not consider it unpatriotic to raise basic questions about our national character…For the evils of racism, poverty and militarism to die, a new set of values must be born. Our economy must become more person-centered than property-centered and profit-centered. Our nation must depend more on its moral power than on its military power.” (Pg. xiii). The same is still true today. 

The Poor People’s Campaign kept a focus on the three main “evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism.” (Pg. xv). For King, these three evils were intimately tied together and would fall together. 

For King, so much of the campaign is grounded in a theological outlook at the world and humanity. As the author of the book says, “Instead of avoiding the language of ‘poor’ and ‘poverty,’ we must challenge the idea that being poor is to be less than human. An economy that creates poverty is what denigrates human dignity.” (Pg. xx)

While the book narrates the story of the Poor People’s Campaign, it also heavily sites a plethora of resources. The Introduction alone has six pages of footnotes. 

Chapter 1 is titled “King’s Vision for a Campaign of the Poor.” This chapter goes in depth into the grounding and foundation for why the Poor People’s Campaign came about. It has a heavy focus on the three evils mentioned earlier. In this, you hear King’s theology come through loudly – a theology that sees the image of God in all people. “If you treat human beings as a means to an end, you thingify those human beings. And if you will thingify persons, you will exploit them economically. And if you will exploit persons economically, you will abuse your military power to protect your economic investments and your economic exploitations.” (Pg. 4). He would go on to keep the focus on economics and race at the forefront of the campaign. 

Chapter 2 is titled “Organizing a New and Unsettling Force.” This chapter goes into detail into the challenges that come with trying to bring in a variety of different groups for a common goal. It also talks about who was involved, what their goals were, and the challenges they faced. Much of the debate centered on the action in Washington and what would happen during that action. There was debate about the role of education coupled with social action. 

Chapter 3 is titled “The Poor Come to Washington.” This could be considered the heart of the book. It’s about the enormous effort that went into making things come together. For one thing, the campaign was historic in the sense of the diversity of people that came. “Northern and southern Black people were the largest delegation, making up nearly two thirds of the registered residents, but the other third included Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Natives, and whites.” (Pg. 41). There is great detail in an often overlooked part of such movements – getting people to a location. In this section, we hear stories of people in great caravans, taking weeks to arrive in DC. And once there, a city is erected to house and care for people – including ways to maintain order and sanitation. When you are talking about thousands of people coming to one location for a long period of time, that takes a lot of planning and management. This chapter also discussed the actions that were taken throughout the campaign – all efforts designed to make an impact on unjust systems that protected racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. The chapter also takes some time to talk about the role of women in leadership positions of the campaign, along with some of the short comings of how women were excluded as well from leadership. 

Chapter 4 is titled “Assessing the Campaign” and focuses on whether the campaign could be considered a success. There was great momentum going into the campaign, and in the previous chapter, what we see if various groups start to make certain demands while other groups settle for compromises, just hoping to get something. Throughout this chapter, the author examines the writings and critiques of a variety of people who have offered an evaluation of the campaign. Much of the criticism about the campaign and why it didn’t reach its full potential also touch on the three evils and how those evils hindered the campaign to end them. As with many such movements, it’s always easier to look at something after the fact and see the glaring errors, but in the moment, those things are usually just not obvious. 

Chapter 5, titled “Theologies of the Poor People’s Campaign,” turns the book from a focus on the history of the campaign to how theology informed and impacted the campaign. It’s an exploration of the role of the church in the movement. Right off the bat, we get a frank assessment: “Across his ministry, King had learned that the church was seldom on the right side of social movements…At the start of 1968 King preached at his home church Ebenezer Baptist, ‘we would have a better world,’ if, ‘Christians would stop talking so much about religion, an start doing something about it…But the problem is that the church has sanctioned every evil in the world, whether it’s racism, or whether it’s the evils of monopoly-capitalism, or whether it’s the evils of militarism.'”(Pg. 95). The chapter goes on to explore various denominational influences and participation in the campaign. 

Chapter 6, “King’s Theological Ethics,” turns to Kings own theological lens. So much of what we did was focused on the human dignity of people – their worth and value as a person made in the image of God. Here the author picks up from the earlier discussion on King’s value of humanity: “The corollary to thingifying human beings was sanctifying property. King said, ‘There are many who wince at the distinction between property and persons – who hold both sacrosanct. My views are not so rigid. A life is sacred. Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being. It is part of the earth man walks on; it is not man.'” (Pg. 114). King also tied this theology of human value into the Kingdom of God and this helped form his Beloved Community. The author nicely sums up the concept of Beloved Community this way, “For King the beloved community is both political and theological, realized and realizable in history as the kingdom of God. Beloved community depends upon the divine indwelling that characterizes all human beings and makes possible a regenerated society where the spirit and value of every person is cherished.” (Pg. 118-9). That’s a beautiful vision for us to move towards and embody. 

Chapter 7, “Movement as Church,” goes back to examining the role of the church in society – both to help move society towards a more just future and its role in being a hindrance to that future. Here we have King’s critique of the church. The author utilizes King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to showcase the church’s failure to address racism and other injustices. As King wrote, “Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent – and often even vocal – sanction of things as they are…The church has often been on the side of the rich, powerful, and prejudiced.” (Pg. 128). 

But King’s critique of the church needs to be seen also with where he saw good in church. King would once write, “The true Church is the spiritual Church. If there are any claims to infallibility it is here. It is in the spiritual church that we witness the kingdom of God on earth.” (Pg. 129). This is King’s distinction between what he called the spiritual church and the organized or institutional church. 

In this chapter, the author also dives into King’s look at the role of suffering and what salvation is. “Suffering in nonviolent resistance to oppression is a response that turns suffering into an opportunity to transform the conditions of suffering.” (Pg. 130). In other words, we don’t suffer just to suffer, but that it might change things and thus reduce future suffering. And this ties into King’s view of salvation. For King, salvation is not just an individual situation. “Salvation is both individual and the social, because the evils of racism, poverty, and war were so deeply structured in the nation, only a transformation of the whole, a rebirth, is capable of dealing with problems that cannot be solved in isolation from one another.” (Pg. 131). 

Chapter 8, “Freedom Church of the Poor Today,” takes a look at a variety of people carrying on the work that King started in various places. It’s interesting to see how the work continues. 

Overall, this was a worthwhile read, if for no other reason than to gain a deeper understanding of the Poor People’s Campaign, its origins, and goals. But I greatly appreciated the exploration of the theology behind the movement, and especially Martin Luther King’s theological lens that informed his work and ministry. 

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