A New Social Justice: In Depth

The Third Reconstruction

New momentum in the continuing march toward a more equitable society.

Nov 15, 2021

In 2011, Venus Colley-Mims found a lump in her breast. Unemployed, Colley-Mims didn’t have health insurance, so she went to the Baptist Health Center emergency room in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama.

Over a two-year period, she visited the ER as a form of health care for pain and complications from the lump, only to be sent home undiagnosed and with medicines that proved useless. Her condition had become so bad that on her last visit to the ER, the attending physician, noticing an odor in the room, asked, “What’s that smell in here?” 

Colley-Mims’ breast had become “rotten,” her mother, Callie Greer, recalls. The physician recommended Colley-Mims for treatment at a local cancer center, where she was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and immediately scheduled for surgery and chemo. But it was too late.

Greer’s daughter passed away in February 2013, shortly after the pair had become involved in the fight to expand Medicaid in Alabama. The previous summer, they had attended the Saving OurSelves (SOS): A Movement for Justice and Democracy rally, as part of the effort to get Alabama’s then-Governor Robert Bentley to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid in the state. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, around 137,000 Alabama residents are still without insurance. Other sources, such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and HealthInsurance.org, put that number much higher, at more than 200,000. Those residents would be eligible if the state expanded Medicaid. Such a change in policy would provide health care that could have saved Colley-Mims’ life—and the lives of so many others like her.

“Venus should be here with us,” says Greer, who is now an Alabama-based organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign, which was revived in 2017 by Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a North Carolina minister well-known for his Moral Mondays protests. “Venus didn’t have health care, so she went to the emergency room, ’cause that’s what Black people do here in our community. That’s our doctor: the emergency room.”

Illustration by Eleanor Shakespeare

The original Poor People’s Campaign was started in 1968 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Campaign’s focus and goal, then and now, is to gain economic justice for all poor people in the United States. When Dr. King was assassinated, Ralph Abernathy, his friend and mentor, carried on the efforts of the campaign, organizing thousands of poor people from diverse racial backgrounds in Washington, D.C., for the Poor People’s March on Washington, where they presented a list of demands to Congress. The demonstration lasted six weeks. 

The new Poor People’s Campaign, called the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and led by Rev. Barber and co-chair Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, is made up of 300-plus partners and 22,000 people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds across 47 states.

By sharing her testimony often about her daughter’s health battle, Greer continues the fight for Medicaid expansion in Alabama—and national health care for all. 

Callie Greer, an organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign in Selma, Alabama, continues to fight for Medicaid expansion in Alabama and national health care, which she believes has the potential to eradicate poverty and the conditions that led to her daughter’s death. Photo by Nick Frontiero/YES! Magazine

The Third Reconstruction

In May 2020, Congresswomen Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), introduced the “Third Reconstruction” resolution, H.R. 438, written in cooperation with Revs. Barber and Theoharis. The resolution aims to address poverty in its entirety, from its root causes—capitalism and racism—to its systemic manifestations, like Colley-Mims’ story, and to create a more equitable society. 

The moment we’re in “demands a third Reconstruction to revive our political commitment to implement moral laws and policies that can heal and transform the Nation.” 

Using research from both the Institute for Policy Studies’ report “Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has the Right to Live” and the U.S. Collaborative of Poverty Centers, the resolution states that there are more than 140 million poor and low-wealth people in the United States today, 87 million people without health care or who are underinsured, 25–50 million people facing food insecurity, and 30–40 million people at risk of homelessness. The Population Reference Bureau estimates the actual number of unhoused people is from 600,000 to more than 1.5 million.

Titled “Third Reconstruction: Fully Addressing Poverty and Low Wages from the Bottom Up,” the comprehensive legislation has been years in the making, says Rep. Lee. It began with the Majority Leader Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, which she co-chairs and helped to establish in 2013 with current House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD). In 2019, the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which Lee also co-chairs, held a hearing with people who live in poverty and representatives from the Poor People’s Campaign.

“The people spoke to what should be included in this resolution,” Rep. Lee says. Following the hearing, she and Rep. Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, formed an alliance between the Poor People’s Campaign and the Progressive Caucus. So far, 41 of their colleagues in the House have signed on. “And it’s building,” Rep. Lee adds. 

“It really speaks to the issues that will protect our democracy and prioritize [the people’s] needs,” Rep. Lee explains. “It … really provides a lot of hope and dignity for people who have not been listened to.”

The resolution is built on the premise that the moral authority for a third Reconstruction is within the nation’s founding values. It states: “This country is founded on the moral commitment to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” 

The Third Reconstruction resolution provides not just stopgap measures until the next major crisis occurs but also a pathway to building a better quality of life for the long haul. From housing and jobs, to mass incarceration and state violence, to immigration and land rights, to defunding the military, to education and health care, to climate and environmental justice, The Third Reconstruction resolution is all-encompassing and more timely than ever. Some of the legislation it proposes is new, and some is already in the works. “When you look at the resolution, we’ve included [some] legislation that’s already been introduced, like the $15 minimum wage, like the health care provisions,” says Rep. Lee. “A lot of it is in motion right now. Making permanent, for example, the child tax credit—that’s part of this.”

Converging crises in the form of a global pandemic, economic downturn, and the escalating impact of white supremacy have raised fundamental considerations about how the nation should respond. And there’s a growing movement of people who argue that it is time for the federal government to adopt a new values alignment at the core of its decision-making.

Revs. Barber (left) and Theoharis (right) have reenergized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s original Poor People’s Campaign as the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The massive movement is sponsoring “The Third Reconstruction” resolution, offering a broad framework for sustained economic investment to move poor and low-wealth people from barely surviving to thriving. Photo by Jack Delano, Bettmann/Getty Images

According to Rev. Theoharis, doing so is a priority of the current president’s administration.

“When President Biden was still a candidate, he had come to a candidate forum that the Poor People’s Campaign held, and had spoken to how he was committed to bringing up issues of poverty and on all of these injustices,” explains Rev. Theoharis. “He joined [us] again, when he was still running … and made this pledge that if he was elected that ending poverty would be more than an aspiration, but a theory of change.” 

The Poor People’s Campaign is still trying to work with the administration to meet with more poor and low-income leaders, economists, and clergy, Rev. Theoharis adds, to make sure that the campaign’s agenda, and many of the things that are included in the resolution, are priorities for the administration. 

Leading up to its scheduled June 2022 action in Washington, the Poor People’s Campaign is planning to reach, engage, and inform 30,000 people per state through social media, its Moral Monday assemblies, and other avenues to put pressure on the administration and Congress. 

“If COVID had not hit [we] would be having a conversation about the mass Poor People’s Assembly Moral March on Washington that happened June 20, 2020, when hundreds of thousands of people descended on D.C. to demand action,” says Rev. Barber. “Because you know, in America, public sentiment and putting a face on the problem is what drives action.” 

But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the campaign held a virtual action. 

“Because poor and low-wealth people demanded it,” Rev. Barber says. “And 2.4 million people showed up online for just the first showing, which showed us that there is a great hunger in this country for an intersectional moral movement that brings together people of all races, colors, creeds, and sexualities to deal with these five interlocking injustices.” These are systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the false narrative of religious nationalism.

People are tired of the silos, left vs. right and liberal vs. conservative, says Barber, posing the question, “What about right vs. wrong?” Moreover, he adds, “People are tired of [hearing] a moral agenda is not an economically sound agenda.”

The economists the campaign has worked with have told the organizers that “the moral agenda is the only way to have an economically sound agenda,” Rev. Barber says.

And the people are “hungry for it.”

Pam Garrison, a West Virginia-based organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign, grew up in a West Virginia coal camp and worked as a cashier most her life. The mines have taken a toll on the health of communities where she lives. Her husband, who worked for years in the mines, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Both her parents died of cancer. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson/YES! Magazine

The People

It’s often said that the people closest to a problem should be a part of the solution. And yet, individuals in power spend a lot of time putting their ideas before the lived experience and testimony of people like Greer in Alabama and Pam Garrison, a West Virginia-based organizer with the Poor People’s Campaign.

A self-described coal miner’s daughter, Garrison grew up in a West Virginia coal camp and worked as a cashier most her life. The mines have taken a toll on the health of many in her family, as well as the neighborhoods and communities where she lives. Her husband, who worked for years in the mines, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Both her parents died of cancer. 

Garrison says that corporate agendas and preferential treatment get in the way of real change, with health care, for example. “That’s why we can’t have universal health care,” she says. “We’ve got this patchwork here and there; that is not working.”

But things changed for her when she heard Rev. Barber preaching on television. 

Never before have I heard—until the Poor People’s Campaign, until our Moral Mondays started with the Third Reconstruction—any language even addressing poverty or us poor people,” she says.

Referring to studies from the Collaborative of Poverty Centers and the Institute for Policy Studies, Garrison says the resolution is supported by extensive research and data: “This has been done by facts, by studies. This ain’t something we just threw together. This is real, actual solutions.”

If one could find a sliver of promise in the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the clear case being made for massive investments in supporting workers like Greer and Garrison, and their families. The Third Reconstruction resolution is more than a realignment or a course correction. It is a fundamental change in how people are valued in the economy and in the creation of capital itself. 

“If we put people first in defining the economy, then we would have to consider metrics around how well-resourced people are in terms of income, in terms of their health,” explains Darrick Hamilton, a professor of economics and urban policy at The New School in New York. “Anytime you define an economy, it is values-based. What we’re talking about when we say a moral economy or an inclusive economy is values-based. But everything is values-based. It’s just owning up to the value you set out in a more honest way. And in a way that’s also centered on people as being the most important entity in our society.”

As the founding director of the Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification, and Political Economy, Hamilton asserts that the government’s “fiduciary responsibility is to its people,” supporting a framework of economic rights.

“If we want people to have authentic agency, authentic freedom, it goes well beyond political and civil rights,” Hamilton says. There needs to be a recognition of economic rights, he says, whereby the powers that be acknowledge that people entering transactions without any resources or economic power are vulnerable to the whims of others, including others’ charity.

Exploring the ways in which different people and entities engage in the economy can break through barriers that prevent transformative policies from being developed. Accepting a new economic framework could open the door to lawmakers passing direct relief to alleviate the intersecting challenges of hospital closures, housing access, and lack of affordable health care and child care.

There is a lot the federal government can do to address economic inequality, Hamilton says, beginning with the tax code—for example, the recent monthly Child Tax Credit payments going directly to families.

“America’s greatest fiscal tool is its tax code, and the concept of a tax subsidy or a tax deduction, as opposed to a refundable tax credit,” Hamilton says. He argues that the existing system values tax cuts, while a properly directed refundable tax credit “could promote a better society without [impacting] our federal spending.” 

Power for poor people will really mean having the ability, the togetherness, the assertiveness, and the aggressiveness to make the power structure of this nation say, “Yes,” when they may be desirous of saying, “No.” And it is my hope that we will get together, and be together, and really stand up to gain power for poor people. Black people, Mexican Americans, American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian Whites all working together to solve the problem of poverty. —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Selma to Montgomery march, March 25, 1965. Photo from Bettman/Getty

Lessons From the Past

Rev. Billy Michael Honor, a Georgia-based faith organizer, says the important part of the first Reconstruction was a fusion coalition. “These are whites and Blacks that came together, like multiracial abolitionist movements, as well as sharecroppers, as well as people who … had a vested interest in restructuring society based upon more economic advantages for those who are disadvantaged.”

The diverse movement-building that happened in the past is a vital lesson for the present, Rev. Honor says. At the core of fusion coalition-building, he adds, is the moral value proposition of committing to uplift people without regard to partisan considerations. He sees the first two reconstruction periods as having significant moral turning points, and that is also true for the third. It’s clear that the tipping point has been the confluence of a global pandemic, racial justice uprisings, attacks on democracy and ballot access, and economic struggle.

But even if the current Congress cannot be compelled to act in the moral best interest of the country, Rev. Honor says, it’s still worth fighting for, which is the message of the Poor People’s Campaign. 

“From the empirical work we’ve done to identify systemic poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, the denial of health care, the war economy, the false narrative of religious nationalism—they all exist because of policy, which means we created them, which means they can be uncreated,” says Rev. Barber. “None of these disparities come as a part of creation, they are created because of us. So as James Baldwin said, if we did it, we can undo it.”

To make these policy changes, there has to be a clear agenda. And for the Poor People’s Campaign that agenda is threefold, says Rev. Barber:

1. Change the narrative: For too long, the narrative has simply been about “middle class, middle class, middle class,” Rev. Barber says, which leaves 140 million people in this country not talked about. And that is a recipe for social and political depression.

2. Build and understand power: “Not only at the ballot box, but when you can bring white folk from the hollers of the mountains in Appalachia, together with Black folk from the hood, and maybe people on federal lands and Latinos—that fusion coalition of poor and low-wealth, Black, Brown, Asian, Native, and white people is really the only power that can fundamentally shift the politics of this nation. Dr. King said that, and that’s why they killed him. But that power is available to us. It just needs organizing.” 

3. Make the Third Reconstruction law: “Ending poverty and building power from the bottom up are the policy solutions and the empirical data-driven answers to addressing the five interlocking injustices. If we don’t do this, the issue is not whether or not the Republican Party will survive or the Democratic Party will survive, but whether America will survive.” 

Rep. Lee acknowledges that the resolution is aspirational and visionary. “But we also have to be practical,” she says. “Not everyone’s going to agree on every part of the resolution, but where we find common ground, we’re gonna get this done.”

Revs. Barber and Theoharis, Greer and Garrison, and the other tens of thousands of organizers with the Poor People’s Campaign now have their sights set on June 18, 2022, when a mass of poor and low-wealth people, along with others in solidarity, will assemble in Washington, D.C. 

“It’s not a march,” Rev. Barber says. “It’s designed to be a statement of commitment, where poor and low-wealth and religious leaders and advocates” will come together to urge Congress to pass the resolution.

“A hundred years ago, all the things today we take for granted, were seen as impossible. And they weren’t won because of one action,” says Rev. Barber. “They were won because side-by-side in America, there will always exist, and has always existed, those who want to deconstruct, downplay, and disempower the promises of the Constitution, and those who want to ensure, engage, and enliven the promises of the Constitution. And that duality is always going to be there. And more often than not, the side of enlivening, and engaging, and empowering the Constitution wins!” 

Anoa Changa is a communications strategist, movement journalist, and former attorney who is now the communications director at Dēmos. She has been published in several outlets including NewsOne, Truthout, The Appeal, Essence, and Scalawag magazine. A retired attorney, she also hosts The Way with Anoa podcast. She is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield is the former executive editor at YES!, where she directed editorial coverage for YES! Magazine, YES! Media’s editorial partnerships, and served as chair of the YES! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. A Detroit native, Zenobia is an award-winning journalist who joined YES! in 2016 to build and grow YES!’s racial justice beat, and continues to write columns on racial justice. In addition to writing and editing, she has produced, directed, and edited a variety of short documentaries spotlighting community movements to international democracy. Zenobia earned a BA in Mass Communication from Rochester College in Rochester, Michigan, and an MA in Communication with an emphasis in media studies from Wayne State University in Detroit. Zenobia has also taught the college course “The Effects of Media on Social Justice,” as an adjunct professor in Detroit. Zenobia is a member of NABJ, SABJ, SPJ, and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English and AAVE.

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