Anti-Poverty Activist Al McSurely: “We Have Strong Reasons for Hope”

On Dec. 4, 1967, anti-racist and anti-poverty activists joined Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as he announced plans for a Poor People’s Campaign to demand human rights protections for the poor and disinherited.

Fifty years later to the day, activists led by Rev. Dr. William Barber II of Repairers of the Breach and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center continued that legacy by launching the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. They released a preliminary audit on poverty in America and announced plans for massive civil disobedience at state legislatures to challenge regressive public policies that hurt the poor.

Among those present at the launch was attorney, civil rights movement veteran, and campaign steering committee member Al McSurely of North Carolina, who worked as an anti-racist organizer in Appalachia as part of the original Poor People’s Campaign.

Facing South recently spoke with McSurely about how he became involved with the original Poor People’s Campaign, the lessons he learned from his organizing, and his hopes for the new campaign. His remarks have been lightly edited for clarity.

Rebekah Barber: How did you get involved with the original Poor People’s Campaign?

Al McSurely: In 1966, the modern civil rights movement Dr. Barber calls the Second Reconstruction came to a choice point, a crossroads.

Many outside observers marked this crossroads by collapsing it with the old Marcus Garvey slogan “Black Power” that Willie Ricks, Stokely Carmichael and others popularized that year, providing a counterpoint percussion section behind lead singer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s baritone melodies of prophetic and liberation theology.

“Love your neighbor as yourself,” Dr. King said to the oppressor watching on television and the sisters at the country churches feeding the marchers who had come to a mass meeting out in the woods and were tired of loving their KKK brothers, like the ones who shot James Meredith for daring to undertake a solitary March Against Fear.

Brothers Ricks and Carmichael challenged the millions of Black people also watching on television, and the “Black Power” slogan and its meaning jumped into the veins of the young men returning from killing poor brown people in Vietnam to Watts, Detroit, and Newark.

It was this cry, this sharp turn in the tone and strategy of the movement, that led to my involvement in the Poor People’s Campaign.

White cadre in the Black liberation struggle, like me, were urged to move into predominantly white areas. Our task, as Jim Forman, Ella Baker, C.T. Vivian and other Black cadre in the Southern movement discussed with Margaret Herring, my partner and wife back then, was to promote an anti-racist narrative among poor and working people in Appalachia, against the prevailing narrative that was deeply embedded in the old Confederacy and slave states.

Backed by the oldest interracial civil rights organization in the South, the Southern Conference Educational Fund (SCEF), our friends Bob and Dottie Zellner set up a project in the Mississippi Delta, and Margaret and I helped to pull together the Southern Movement Project of SCEF in Appalachia.

Meanwhile, our friends Anne and Carl Braden, who were working out of SCEF’s Louisville office with Ella Baker and other veteran Black leaders, traveled and reported on the Southern freedom movement, helped start discussions about the immorality of the Vietnam War, funded the first renewed women’s rights movement organizer, and tried to hook the civil rights work with the exciting new wave of labor organizing.

In 1967, inspired by the billions of dollars of US taxpayers’ money spent on the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe after World War II, Dr. King proposed first to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and then to every movement organization that would listen to him that in the spring of 1968, as the presidential campaign heated up, the Southern freedom movement would lead a national Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, DC, to demand a Marshall Plan for the South to create an economic revolution.

Dr. King invited a diverse group of Southern cadre who had been working against the war, poverty, and racism for several years to help provide a rainbow of colors to his plan. He wanted to be sure that thousands of Blacks, Appalachians, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans would get to DC in the spring of 1968.

Just months before the scheduled mobilization, Margaret and I were released from jail where we had been detained on trumped-up sedition charges, and we had recently welcomed our first son, Victor, into the world. As the Poor People’s Campaign geared up, I was not too enthusiastic about leaving my family. My organizer’s ego was also hurting — I thought another march in Washington was not the best way to get our Black-white fusion alliance going. I was wrong.

On April 4, 1968, the news [of King’s assassination] hit me in the guts. I was mad as hell and I knew I had let my pride get in the way of helping Martin with a plan that actually fit perfectly into our mission in Appalachia — engaging in common actions against the systems of poverty and war to break down race prejudice and discrimination.

The next week, Margaret and I organized a bunch of young Appalachians and sent a letter to Loyal Jones, the head of the Council of Southern Mountains, demanding he help get us some buses to go to DC After a three-day sit-in at Berea College [in Kentucky], where the Council’s office was located, Mr. Jones agreed to give us money for the buses to transport 120 Appalachians. We managed to fill the buses and get everyone to DC.

What lessons did you learn from your anti-racist organizing during the Second Reconstruction?

Back in the day, Che Guevara said it might take “two, three, or many Vietnams” to diffuse US imperialism’s focus on the colonial poverty the French had left in a small country halfway around the world.

I believe the most important lesson I learned from the Second Reconstruction is to call for “two, three, or many moral fusion movements” in every county and state in the nation, challenging the systems of racism, war, and poverty that are held together through corrupt crony capitalism.

Every social justice activist in 2017, 2018 is called to walk several miles in the shoes of our sisters and brothers from different faiths, regions, colors, sexual orientations, political parties, and genders as we learn to tolerate uncomfortable coalitions in these formative periods. We learn to struggle by struggle. And then by reading, thinking, and talking. And then by testing our ideas in more struggle.

Why do we need a New Poor People’s Campaign 50 years after the original campaign was launched?

Poverty has three dimensions. First and foremost, it means you are broke. Second, it means you cannot make any plans, which are the key to human growth and development. Third, your ability to maintain a moral course is constantly challenged by a rumbling stomach. Whenever you forget what it is like to be poor, fast for a couple of days.

Assessing the three dimensions of poverty now against the shape that people, and particularly children, were in back in 1967-1968 when the original campaign was launched, we are in worse shape.

But when we assess the strength of the popular coalition against war, poverty, and racism-fascism, we find that there are many leaders who have been preparing for this moment in history with a clear understanding of the centrality of the interconnected struggle against war, racism, and poverty. We have strong reasons for hope.

How did the Moral Movement in North Carolina set the stage for the launching of the New Poor People’s Campaign?

Many dedicated cadre in the Second Reconstruction in the South — both Southern natives and those who came South to be involved in building a beloved community — had given up on the God they had learned in Sunday School. At best, we were taught God was a wonderful old man in the sky, like Santa Claus who gave out presents once a year.

We were never taught that Jesus, a brown-skinned Palestinian in his early 30s, was concerned with the political structures of his day. There were several Jewish youth and many Black and white Christians in the movement, but most of us had never been exposed to Jesus as a revolutionary, or to the many contributions the Prophet Muhammad and the prophets of the Old Testament had made to revolutionary thought.

For myself, I could not stand going to a white church, although my Indiana mother was brought up in the abolitionist tradition of the Disciples of Christ. When Rev. Barber included me in some of his most prophetic actions, along with [North Carolina writer and historian] Tim Tyson and a few other whites, and I began seeing him put Jesus’s teachings into action, it had a great effect on me. And my seven children.

In North Carolina, we learned our constitutional rights by fighting for them in the rotunda on Jones Street [at the legislature] and the Wake County courtrooms. We learned our moral standards and duty by standing against the unconstitutional and sinful policies of an all-white caucus of men who had come to power through illegal voter suppression and gerrymandering.

This training prepared our North Carolina cadre as we join with new friends from around the nation who are drinking this wine of hope and justice with us.

What are your hopes for the New Poor People’s Campaign?

I have learned not to articulate my hopes but rather to live and work with people of faith who look far down the path of righteousness most of the time but every couple of weeks or so get into their meditating and prayer mode, look around themselves, look outside themselves, and see the trees and rivers, like the romantic vision of Native Americans as they traveled old paths through difficult new circumstances.

I have my memories of Resurrection City, of four busloads of Appalachians going over the crooked roads of West Virginia, and of the hundreds of brilliant revolutionaries I have worked with. I know we are on the right path, and I’m staying wide open to new friends and perspectives.