Photo depicting a crowd gathered and listening to speakers. A young Black girl holds a sign that reads, "Catholics support the Poor People's Campaign!"

Poor People’s Campaign: Called to Lead — Part 3

by Chardonnay Beaver

In 1967, after fighting against Jim Crow segregation and winning many civil rights victories for Black and Brown Americans, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others called for a “revolution of values” in America.

The Poor People’s Campaign marks Dr. King’s philosophical shift from civil rights to human rights — demanding a new consciousness amid the threat of war, poverty, racial discrimination, and white supremacy. This inclusive fusion movement would unite all races through their commonality of struggle, to create solutions that would revolutionize American values.

In June 1968, an assembly of poor impacted communities were to gather in Washington, D.C., for the inaugural Poor People’s Campaign March. However, in April 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and the Poor People’s Campaign was continued under the leadership of Mrs. Coretta Scott King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

Fifty years later, in 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival continued Dr. King’s legacy. Now, branches in over 30 U.S. states are active participants in this national call for a moral revival — including Washington.

This is a four-part series about the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival through the lens of the Washington State chapter. This article — the third in the series — traces the historical significance of faith leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign while covering the story of Rev. Kelle Brown, whose leadership role as Washington’s newest tri-chair aligns with her divine calling to amplify the voices of low-income communities.

Leadership and participation are two equally significant modalities in the struggle for justice. In 1967, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were the lead architects of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). At the genesis of the campaign, faith leaders stood in solidarity with poor and low-income Americans.

Rev. Kelle Brown, the senior pastor of Seattle’s Plymouth United Church of Christ and the newest tri-chair of Washington’s chapter of the PPC, says she’s compelled to vocalize ways we can become a more just and equitable society. 

The Pacific Northwest was infamously labeled a None Zone in 2004, after a book series reported Washington as one of several states with a high percentage of people with no religious affiliation. Faith leaders in the Pacific Northwest have contemplated the survival of their institutions while wrestling with convincing others that faith-based communities add value to their lives. However, Rev. Brown says faith leaders aren’t called to lead because of their implied divinity; rather, they lead because their inner convictions guide them towards a higher moral standard that summons them to put their lives on the line for justice and freedom for all. 

“I believe in leadership, not as something that’s a part of ego-stroking or wanting to be in charge,” she said, “but, I think leadership comes from being compelled and called in righteous ways where you believe you have the gifts for such a time as this.”

Photo depicting Rev. Kelle Brown holding a poster that reads, "We Won't Be Silent Anymore."
Rev. Kelle Brown stands outside the U.S. Capitol building holding a sign with the Poor People’s Campaign slogan “We Won’t Be Silent Anymore,” Sept. 2022. (Photo courtesy of Rev. Kelle Brown.)

Efforts to make space for the voices of the impoverished in a state with a high concentration of affluence is challenging. Rev. Brown says many people are hesitant to participate in the PPC, or discuss the consequences of poverty in Washington State, because they inaccurately perceive participation as a request to relinquish their affluence.

“There are many people who don’t say the word poor — let alone think about those who are experiencing poverty, low wages, housing issues, ecology,” Brown said.

A recent Seattle Times article describes the Kent City Council’s recent reinforcement of banning homeless camps; King County cities like Kent, Auburn, Edmonds, and others across Washington are making camping a criminal penalty. Policies and ordinances like these criminalize the homeless and poor. 

“We have absolutely created the haves and the have nots,” Rev. Brown said. “There’s no room [for trust] in a system that has people living in RVs or in places that shouldn’t be inhabited by humans. I would suggest we need to care about those who’ve been most impacted and share our resources.”

In the PPC, the role of faith leaders in the campaign is to amplify the voices of poor and low-income Americans in spaces where they’ve been siloed. Rev. Brown’s perspective on leadership was inspired by her introduction to the national PPC co-chairs, Rev. William Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharris. Rev. Brown attended a preliminary meeting in Seattle during the preparation phases that would lead up to the relaunching of the PPC in 2018. In the basement of an Episcopal church, Rev. Barber and others discussed ways to nationalize the campaign mobilizing strategies. One of the strategies included Mass Moral Mondays, a call for the PPC state chapters to demonstrate at their state capitol. At the state capitol, participants of Moral Monday raise awareness about homelessness, unaffordable health care, environmental crises, racism, and other injustices. 

“[The meeting] was an opportunity for us to come on board for Washington State and really think about what [our state Poor People’s Campaign chapter] was going to be,” Brown said. “I was there for the first six Mondays at the state capitol; we held rallies on the stairs of the capitol building.”

Photo depicting Bishop Vasti McKenzie and Rev. William Barber III gathered with others around a yellow and black Poor People's Campaign poster.
The Bishop Vasti McKenzie (far left), Rev. William Barber III (second from the left), and others gather around a Poor People’s Campaign poster in the U.S. Capitol for a congressional briefing to discuss voting in consideration of low-income voters, Sept. 2022. (Photo courtesy of Rev. Kelle Brown.)

With one of the parables he shared, Rev. Barber — who’s been described as the modern day Moses — illustrates the problem with cutting the nation’s poverty in half. He compares it to a poor American mother who’s forced to consider which of her two children will starve and which will embody the American dream. Rev. Brown, a graduate of Spelman College raised in Columbus, Georgia, also resonates with the parable of the poor American mother. In addition to being a pastor, she’s also a single parent who has experienced housing insecurity.

“It’s because I’ve been on the fringes of society that I am weaving fabric for all people. For me, [being a tri-chair representing Washington’s Poor People’s Campaign] is not about being in control, but this is absolutely about the leadership I see modeled so beautifully in Bishop Barber and others,” Rev. Brown said. 

In September, after being invited by the PPC co-chairs, Rev. Brown joined faith leaders from across the country to meet with members of Congress at the nation’s capitol. At the congressional briefing, faith leaders requested that Congress vote on issues related to fair wages, voting rights, and poverty reduction ahead of the midterm election, according to Episcopal News Services

“There were at least two congresspeople, if not more, who mentioned that they used the tenets of the Poor People’s Campaign to inform and educate their legislation and the bill they are creating. That was wonderful to hear,” Rev. Brown said.

Black-and-white flier advertising Washington's "Souls to the Polls" event.
The “Souls to the Polls” flier that was posted on social media for community members to attend. The rally took place Oct. 30, 2022, at Plymouth United Church of Christ. (Flier courtesy of Rev. Kelle Brown)

Rev. Brown now works to mobilize low-income voters and foster connections with Seattle-based faith leaders in preparation for midterm elections. She organizes a “Souls to the Polls’’ rally, a mobilizing strategy originating in the Black churches used to register voters and march collectively to the nearest voting drop box to cast their ballot. 

Rev. Brown also convened a regional meeting with faith leaders encouraging conversations about reproductive rights, redistricting, and other policy-related issues concerning low-income, marginalized voters in Washington. 

“My ministry, and the ministry of the church, has been focused on folks who are experiencing poverty, homeless, and other issues of inequity and vulnerability while being disenfranchised,” Brown said. “That has been the whole of who I am.”

Stay Tuned

The next article in this four-part series will further explore the stories of the Washington Poor People’s Campaign (WAPPC) and its affiliates, in addition to their mobilizing efforts toward midterm elections. Read the first part, Poor People’s Campaign: The Call for a National Moral Revival, or the second part, The Value of the Ballot.

This story was funded in part by a Voter Education Fund grant from King County Elections and the Seattle Foundation.

Chardonnay Beaver is an influential speaker, storyteller, and writer for The Facts Newspaper. Chardonnay partakes in an undergraduate experience at University of Washington. In 2019, she established Words of Wisdom by Char (WOWbyChar): a platform designed to empower individuals in their pursuit of authenticity. To learn more, visit her website.

📸 Featured Image: A girl holds a poster that states “Catholics support the Poor People’s Campaign,” while watching a speaker deliver their speech at the Mass Moral Assembly. Washington, D.C., June 18, 2022 (Photo: Chardonnay Beaver)

Before you move on to the next story …
The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With over 900 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us get to 1,100 Rainmakers by the end of the year and keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible. 
If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn't have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference. 
We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!