At the National Mall in Washington on Saturday, two huge banners hung on either side of an elevated stage, framing the Capitol building in the background: fight poverty not the poor, they read. That was the central message of the thousands of people who cheered, yelled, chanted, danced, and sang in support of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Over the past 40 days, more than 2,000 people have been arrested across the country as they demanded a right to adequate food, housing, health care, education, fair wages, and other basic necessities. They stopped traffic, petitioned state legislators, and engaged in other organizing and nonviolent direct action in 40 states and the nation’s capital. Many of those activists were on hand on Saturday to mark the completion of the campaign’s first phase as it continues the work that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who founded the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968.
In the crowd, signs identifying contingents from at least 20 states were visible. Representatives from another 20 states identified themselves in a roll call on stage. Every region of the nation was well-represented, including by indigenous people from tribal lands. People came from as far as Alaska. “You are the founding members of the 21st century Poor People’s Campaign,” the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the campaign, announced to the crowd. “This is not a commemoration of what happened 50 years ago—this is the re-inauguration.”
A goal of this contemporary movement is to flip the dominant narrative of poverty in America from one that demonizes the poor to one that questions the morality of current public policy and the elected officials who craft it—a status quo in which 140 million people struggle to make ends meet, 54 million people work jobs below a living wage, 14 million are on the verge of not being able to afford their water bills, 4 million are homeless, migrant children are caged at our border, and black families continue to be ripped apart by mass incarceration.
The Nation spoke with some of the activists who came to Washington this weekend and who now plan to carry on the work of the Poor People’s Campaign for months and years to come. They are at the forefront of this decentralized movement, which emphasizes state-based campaigns led by directly impacted people.
Louise Brown, Charleston, SC: 49 Years Fighting for Better Wages and a Union
Louise Brown, 83, is a bridge between the original Poor People’s campaign and the current movement. In 1969, she was one of 12 African-American women who were unjustly fired by Charleston’s Medical College Hospital after they tried to meet with the hospital’s director about higher pay and racism toward black workers. Their dismissal ignited a strike that lasted 140 days and brought in allies from the Poor People’s Campaign, who were redeploying after Resurrection City on the National Mall—among them were Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.