One day this past July I abandoned my blueberry patch to drive to Louisville and sit in a gathering of artists and activists—black, white, and Latino—who all said they wanted to help change the world. There were teenage rappers from the Mississippi Delta and young video artists from southeast Louisiana. It was a workshop session at the national conference of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign.
The campaign, made up of more than 90 organizations around the country, aims to “unite the poor across color lines as the leadership base for a broad movement to abolish poverty … through advancing economic human rights as named in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as the rights to food, housing, health, education, communication and a living wage job.” Some of the campaign’s affiliates do things such as mass occupations of property to prevent home foreclosures. The campaign itself marched on the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis last year and is planning a march from the Mississippi Delta to the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in 2010. They seem to be picking up the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign that fell after Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968.
Not long ago, talk of changing the world, much less abolishing poverty, would draw, at best, a cynical snort. But that was before “yes, we can” and all that. Today, hope is still a four-letter word, but you can say it in public again. But as we near the end of the first Obama year, it is also becoming painfully clear that even electing a smart and sane former community organizer—with big majorities in Congress to boot—was not enough to change the world. The last time I checked, big money still held the upper hand in Washington. There’s been a lot more help to mega-banks than to foreclosure victims. The smart and sane solution on health-care reform (single-payer) never even got a hearing, while the insurance and pharmaceutical companies were stroked and placated at every turn.
But presidents don’t change the world. People do. Presidents are pulled along behind great waves of popular uprising. That’s what happened during our last Great Depression, and Franklin Roosevelt knew it. That’s why he once famously told a group of progressive activists that he agreed with their proposal. “Now,” he said, “go make me do it.” And that’s what happened again in the 1960s when the civil rights movement forced President Kennedy to become a better man than he ever meant to be.
The Poor People’s Campaign meeting I attended this summer focused on the role of artists in a grassroots movement for economic human rights. Again, looking back at those two great periods of social change in the 20th century, they both were accompanied by a renaissance of popular art. Writers, artists, actors, painters, and photographers all had a place in the New Deal and the labor movement that fueled it. In the 1960s, African-American religion and music fueled the civil rights movement and all the ripples of social change it inspired. Acting for a better world requires, first and foremost, an act of imagination. You have to see the potential for change—in yourself and in your community. That act of the imagination can even lead one to see, as one rapper put it in Louisville, “that capitalist society is not eternal.”
That’s why, to the Poor People’s Campaign organizers, the arts aren’t just an add-on to political action. They are powerful motivators that can crack the shell of our American isolation.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.