A story is told about the time Henry David Thoreau was put in jail for refusal to pay his poll tax. Thoreau had objected on grounds of conscience as the poll tax was used to support the Mexican-American War, which he deemed unjust. In Thoreau’s understanding of civil disobedience, it was right to follow one’s conscience and accept the consequences. His time in jail is well documented, though the famous story of it does not appear in any records and is considered apocryphal. The story tells of Thoreau receiving a visit from his dear friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, another champion of conscience. As it goes, Emerson is shocked to see his friend behind bars and asks, “Henry, why are you here?” To which Thoreau replies, “Waldo, why are you not here?”
It’s a deeply American story because the questions Emerson and Thoreau ask each other are questions of conscience and citizenship. Thoreau believed that both required our full engagement and our deepest commitment. In his essay, “Civil Disobedience,” he urged us to see ourselves as engaged citizens, wrestling daily with what it means to live together under this form of democracy. “Cast your whole vote,” he urged, “not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” And Thoreau put his body behind the words. His question to Emerson was, in essence, a question of whole-heartedness.
Of course, other stories less apocryphal have been handed down. Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by Thoreau’s commitments and used them to develop a kind of civil disobedience to deploy against British oppression in South Africa and South Asia. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was similarly influenced by Gandhi and applied his model in the American Civil Rights Movement. Writing of Gandhi, King observed, “he said that no just man [or woman] can submit to anything evil, even if it means standing up to and being disobedient to the laws of the state.” The movement that King and others began was rooted in the radical idea that people could simply refuse to participate in unjust systems by putting their bodies on the line. Think of the ordinary people facing fire hoses, dogs, and angry mobs. They were each answering Thoreau’s old question. But they weren’t the only ones.
Fifty years after Dr. King’s death, the movement continues. The North Carolina preacher, Dr. William Barber, and the Union Seminary professor, Liz Theoharis, have been doing the unfinished work. Reviving the Poor People’s Campaign, they invite us to refocus our attention on the three social ills that King called “triplets of evil” — militarism, racism, and economic injustice. The campaign is now in over 30 states, calling attention to the ways fellow citizens are suffering in this country, which is among the wealthiest the world has ever known. According to the campaign, 140 million Americans are now poor or low-income. Sixty-four million people work for less than a $15 per hour living wage. Thirty-two million Americans have no health insurance, and 40 million more have medical debt. And 53 cents of every dollar of Federal discretionary spending goes to the military with only 15 cents for anti-poverty programs, many of which are on the chopping block. The numbers are staggering, and they go on and on.
The new Poor People’s Campaign asks us to reflect deeply on the state of things and then join together to change them. Rev. Barber and others are calling for a new language of morality and ethics to infuse our civic life. For isn’t it immoral, isn’t it unethical, to allow so many to live without the basics in a land of such plenty? They have taken up Thoreau’s question by holding peaceful demonstrations at state capitals throughout the country. The Poor People’s Campaign is continuing to gather in Columbia the first three Mondays in June at 2 p.m. You can learn more about it, including its history and context, by Googling the movement’s website. Or you can go to the statehouse and see for yourself.
I have been inspired by ordinary citizens who have chosen acts of nonviolent civil disobedience this spring. I have been inspired by others who stand around them to sing, pray, and bear witness. I have been inspired by the truth that the movement didn’t die with Dr. King, but carries on through every season, its question of conscience coming back to us all: Why are you not here?
Jeremy Rutledge is Circular Church’s senior minister and the co-president of Charleston Area Justice Ministry.