Co-chaired by the Reverend William J. Barber II and Liz Theoharis, the Poor People’s Campaign began in May 2018 with 40 days of coordinated action in state homes across the United States to address systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy. .
Now mobilizing for a “Mass Assembly of the Poor and Working Low Wages” on June 18, Today’s Poor Campaign is reviving the work of the original Poor People’s Campaign led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , in 1968.
Billed as a “moral march on Washington and to the polls” for the November election, next weekend’s event will target lawmakers and urge them to confront what the Poor People’s Campaign calls the “moral, economic crisis and politics” facing the nation.
From the west coast to the east and every point in between, people are signing up for seats on the buses and joining the organization. And they bring colleagues, family, friends and neighbors with them to the nation’s capital. The massive march will take place, appropriately, on the weekend of June 16, which celebrates the democratic revolution that ended slavery and established black reconstruction in the South.
The original Poor People’s Campaign was King’s last major effort before his assassination, the cornerstone of all his work on behalf of the racially and economically oppressed. King was instrumental in bringing together the workers’ and civil rights coalition that defeated key elements of the Jim Crow counter-revolution after Reconstruction. Then, as now, the forces of democracy and the far right clashed.
When King said, “I have a dream!” for more than a quarter of a million people in DC in August 1963, the terror of the KKK and the police in Alabama was still a fresh wound. As many as 1,000 Birmingham children walked out of school last May in protest against segregation, only to be met with fire hoses, police dogs, batons and arrests. But that action forced the Birmingham Truce Agreement, a package of anti-segregationist measures, followed by white supremacist bombings, civil unrest and heavy repression.
“We have… come to this sacred place to remind America of the fierce urgency of the moment,” King said then. “Now is the time to deliver on the promises of democracy.”
The current poor people’s campaign says it’s all over again. Today’s requirements have echoes of the past.
By the time of King’s speech in 1963, President John F. Kennedy had already been pressured to propose the Civil Rights Act. But it was blocked by a filibuster in the Senate. By November, three months after Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), NAACP, United Auto Workers (UAW), Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other civil rights and labor organizations had gathered along the reflecting pools of the Lincoln Memorial – Kennedy had been assassinated.
Nevertheless, a year later, the movement behind King won the Civil Rights Act and the “great society” anti-poverty legislation. In August 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. But ten days before the pen was written to launch the war on poverty, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, escalating the United States’ war on Vietnam. It was then that King began to increasingly emphasize the link between racism, poverty and militarism.
“There seemed to be real promise of hope for the poor, black and white, through the anti-poverty program,” he said in 1967. “Then came the hoarding in Vietnam, and I saw that program broken and gutted.”
In November 1967, King announced the Poor People’s Campaign, with a plan to raid Washington the following May. The campaign called for $30 billion for a full employment program, guaranteed income and more housing for low-income people.
Four weeks before the planned mobilization, King was assassinated in Memphis. He was there for a march with mostly black sanitation workers, striking against unequal pay and working conditions after a horrific incident in which two sanitation workers were crushed to death.
The movement cried, but it pushed forward. The poor campaign continued under the leadership of King’s successor at the SCLC, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy.
Corretta Scott King led a Mother’s Day protest in DC, kicking off two weeks of protests for an economic bill of rights. A six-week tent camp named “Resurrection City” was built on the National Mall. The UAW took out 80 buses for the 50,000-strong protests on “Solidarity Day,” which was held June 19-19.
On June 4, as thousands filled the National Mall, Robert Kennedy, the candidate most aligned with the civil rights movement, won the California Democratic Party primary. Later that night he was shot and killed. Twenty days later, over a thousand police officers came to the National Mall to evict Resurrection City, arresting hundreds of people. Six months later, the far-right forces behind Nixon, who denounced his campaign against “rioters” and promised more policing and protecting school segregation, would come to power after the November election.
Four decades later, labor and civil rights organizations across the country united to elect the country’s first black president, Barack Obama. What followed was both the racist Tea Party backlash that crippled Congress in 2010 and brought Trump to power six years later.
But a broad labor and left-wing struggle has also emerged to advance a democratic agenda – from Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and #Fightfor15 and a Union to Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March of 2017 and more recent fights for advocate for abortion rights. Struggles for LGBTQ equality have intensified, particularly in defense of trans people, and a growing new activism in the labor movement, increasingly led by young workers, is pushing labor campaigns forward across the country. The small-d democratic and socialist electoral struggles that supported Bernie Sanders, AOC, and Stacey Abrams are also part of this mass democratic movement.
This is the context of today’s Poor People’s Campaign.
Its leaders come naturally through their activism. Barber was born two days after the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. His parents moved to North Carolina when he was in kindergarten to join the school desegregation movement, and he’s been a fighter ever since. The church he leads, Greenleaf Christian Church Disciples of Christ, is a “123-year-old congregation founded by former slaves”.
“If you follow the James River from this town to the sea, you will find the place where my African American ancestors first set foot on these banks,” Barber told walkers from Richmond, Virginia. , in 2016 for the Fight for $15 convention. . They were in “the capital of the old Confederacy,” he reminded the crowd.
Behind him stood a statue of the Robert E. Lee statue, since removed and chopped into pieces after the massive Black Lives Matter protests of 2021. “My African American ancestors were brought here to work the land, to build this nation , but they didn’t pay anything for their work.”
He spoke of the reversal of the democratic gains of black reconstruction after the Civil War: “When African Americans first served in Southern legislatures, they built a movement with poor white people. … They rewrote the constitutions of all the Southern states,” and “banned unpaid labor, demanded equal protection under the law… That wasn’t the 1960s, it was the 1860s! Barber noted that they wrote into these constitutions the right “to the enjoyment of the fruit of your labor”.
“They knew that work without decent pay was nothing but a pseudo form of slavery.”
Theoharis began his activism in college to fight homelessness in Philadelphia after moving there from his hometown of Milwaukee. As a student, she became involved with a group called Empty the Shelters, a local affiliate of the National Union of the Homeless. After leading the creation of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, with Barber, she became co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign in 2017.
“We cannot go back to normal,” Theoharis wrote in a statement to President Trump and Congress at the start of the COVID-19 emergency. “Now is not the time for run-off solutions. We know that when you lift from the bottom, everyone lifts. There are concrete solutions to this immediate crisis and to the longer-term diseases that we have been battling for months, years and decades before,” she said.
“We will continue to organize and build our power until you respond to these demands. Many millions of us have suffered for far too long. We will no longer be silent. »
The massive mobilization in Washington, DC, on June 18 will be proof of this refusal to remain silent.
Join CPUSA’s “500-Strong” delegation to DC on June 18th. Register here.