EDITOR’S NOTE: On Saturday, June 18, tens of thousands of poor and low-income people gathered with allies on Pennsylvania Avenue to lift the voices of those most directly impacted by poverty, racism, militarism, ecological devastation, the denial of healthcare and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. Bishop William J. Barber II, cochair of the Poor People's Campaign, which organized the march and assembly, gave the following address to introduce those who shared their stories and plans to reconstruct American democracy.
Today, on this land where our First Nation brothers and sisters first lived free, we are gathered because there are unnecessarily 140 million poor and low wealth people in this country. That’s 43 percent of the nation, 52 percent of our children, 66 million white people, 26 million black people, 68 percent of Latinos and Natives, and more than 60 percent of Asians who are entangled in the unjust weeds of poverty and bound up by the interlocking realities of systemic racism, refusal to pay a living minimum wage, bad tax policy, ecological devastation, denial of health care, the war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism and white supremacy. This level of poverty in this nation—the richest nation in the history of the world—constitutes a moral crisis and a fundamental failure of the polices of greed.
These numbers and interlocking injustices are not just about debates between the right, moderates, and the left. No, this language is too puny for what we face. They represent a crisis of democracy and a shared failure to center poor and low wealth people, the greatest moral leaders and survivors in our society and the bellwether of our well-being.
But there is something else that is even more grotesque: the regressive policies which produce 140 million poor and low wealth people are not benign. They are forms of policy murder. We know that prior to the pandemic, poor people died at a rate of 700 a day, 250,000 a year. Poor people have been 2 to 5 times more likely to die from Covid during this pandemic so far, and we know this can’t simply be explained by vaccination status. It’s related to the discrimination in our policies toward poor and low-wealth people.
On Monday of this week, the National Academy of Sciences said more than 330,000 lives could’ve been saved if we simply had a policy of universal healthcare for all people, which is a human right that should never be connected to your job but to your humanity.
Because the many of people you see here today know these realities, this pain, this injustice and this death from personal experience, we knew that we must gather here, we must have a moral meeting in the streets. We are not unlike our forerunners who sought to mend every flaw in this nation.
The abolitionists, those who fought against lynching, those who have stood for families, those who have stood for labor rights, those who have stood for civil rights and women’s rights and LGBTQ rights and the right for women to control their own bodies; those who have stood for peace in the time of war, those who have demanded that children be treated right, and those who have demanded just immigration policies have had to come to these same streets and openly expose moral crises throughout our history.
This sacred moral procession has been required to exorcise the demons of greed and hate and racism in our society. They’ve all had to recognize that there comes a time we must have a moral meeting. Such is this moment today.
This is why we are here, and we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore.
We come to this Mass Poor People’s and Low Wage Worker’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls because we must meet this moment. We have to meet in the streets and at the ballot box and in the political suites of this nation. We have cry loud from the pulpits and in the public square.
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We know that our great moral and constitutional traditions declare that we must establish justice and ensure equal protection under the law for all people. We know that when the nation is moving away from the principles of life, liberty, justice and freedom for all people and there has been a long train of abuses, we must correct the nation. We are bound to do that by the basic vision of the Declaration of Independence and all the promises of our founding documents.
We know that our greatest moral traditions in Scripture call us to mourning that refuses to be quiet in the face of wrong. Holy Scripture calls us to repentance in a time of crisis. From Amos to Isaiah to the gospels of Jesus, we are told that we must gather a remnant of people who refuse to say yes to the wrongs of our time. We know that there are moments when, in the anointing, we must declare good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind. We must remind every nation, no matter how great she claims her gross domestic product is or how powerful she thinks her military is, that nations are under divine judgment until they care fully and lovingly for the least of these, the hungry, the outcast, the left out.
And we know from every religious tradition from Judaism to Islam to Unitarianism that we are called not only to believe in the moral arc of justice, but to bend it with the moral weight of our nonviolent action.
Today we are determined to bend the moral arc right here in America. We are resolved not to stop until we no longer have breath to breathe or strength to give. We are the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and together with all our allies, won’t be silent unseen or unheard anymore!
We are not here to beg, but to demand what is fully ours and is every human being’s right. We’ve come to put a face and a voice on these numbers of poverty, to show that they are real people and real lives. They are us and we are them, and we cannot be silent anymore.
The very fact that realities like this exist means that we are engaged in a moment that is constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, politically insensitive, and economically insane. And we won’t be silent anymore.
As the great prophet of the Harlem Renaissance declared during the Great Depression, there comes a time when we must say:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
We must say with our bodies, with our voices, with all of our suffering and all of our sacrifices, with our marching and with our meetings in the public square, that we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as there are 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country and we know it does not have to be this way, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as 87 million people are uninsured or underinsured, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as millions of people go to bed hungry in food desserts, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as millions of our neighbors are homeless or facing homelessness, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as 4 million people can buy unleaded gas but can’t buy unleaded water, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as our military spends twice as much as Iran, Iraq, Russia and North Korea combined and we know just 10 percent of that bloated budget could provide health care and public education, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as 55 million people face voter suppression with current suppression laws, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as 32 million people work for less that $15 dollars an hour, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as 4 million families are thrown back into poverty because of the refusal of 49 Republicans and 2 Democrats to act, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as the lies of scarcity is used to prevent the needed investments, we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as people in power lie and say, “we don’t know what to do,” we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
As long as people keep asking “how much will it cost?” rather than “how much is it costing for things to stay as they are,” we won’t be silent or unseen or unheard anymore!
Let us be clear: we are not simply here for a day. This assembly is to declare the full commitment of a moral fusion coalition, led by poor and low-wealth people, from every part of these United States. We are black; we are brown; we are Native; we are Latino; we are Asian; we are young; we are old; we are Republican; we are Democrat; we are independent; we are from California to the Carolinas; we are from Massachusetts to Mississippi; we are from Georgia to the Great Lakes of Michigan; we are from the Apache lands to Alabama to Appalachia; we are from Montana to Missouri; we are from Alaska to Arkansas; we are from every place in this country, and we won’t be silent unseen or unheard anymore!
We are the rejected, and we are clear that we are more than a third of the electorate now. 45 percent of the electorate in battleground states are poor and low-wealth. We are those who have been rejected by the politics of trickle-down economics, rejected by neoliberalism, rejected by a political discourse that refuses to even call the names of the poor and low with in this country.
One hundred and fifty years ago, formerly enslaved Blacks joined poor whites to build a First Reconstruction.
Over 50 years ago, Black and White people joined people of faith to follow the prophetic servant leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and take on racism, poverty, and militarism in a Second Reconstruction.
These reconstructions had major success, but they were both stopped by violent regressivism.
Now is our time for a Third Reconstruction. We have seen a lot of unity and power building and policy building, but we can’t stop or be silent now!
We are not an insurrection. We are the resurrection!
A movement of love, not hate; hope, not despair. Because we are willing to suffer underneath trouble in order to transform it.
We recognize that the moment has come for the rejected to be the chief cornerstone in the building of a Third Reconstruction in this nation.
This is the day the Lord has made!
Now there must be a reconstruction that will acknowledge the full weight of poverty in this country, that will demand the necessities of life for all of us. And we know that if all the rejected join together—the Black people that are rejected, the White that are rejected, the Brown that are rejected, the Natives that are rejected, the Asians that are rejected; the young, the old, the people from rural areas and urban areas that are rejected—when all of the rejected join together, when all of us get together we are the cornerstone of a Third Reconstruction in America.
We are the cornerstone of transformation, now in this moment. The stones that the builder rejected, cemented in love, truth, and justice, must be the chief cornerstones of building beloved community here on earth.
And so, make no mistake, from the state house to the Congress to the White House, this is no one day on and then off.
Until children are protected and educated…
Until sick folk are insured and healed…
Until low-wage workers are paid and organized…
Until affordable houses for all are provided…
Until the atmosphere and land water environment are saved…
Until voting rights are expanded and protected…
Until saving the world, living in peace, and lifting the poor rather than spending more money to blow up the world are principles never rejected…
We can’t and won’t be silent, unheard or unseen anymore!
If we have to march, we will because the actions of too few are hurting too many.
If we have to engage in every nonviolent direct action tool at our disposal in DC and around the country, we will.
If we have to bring more media attention to the plight of the poor and low wealth, we will.
If we have ask workers to turn election days in to labor strike days, we will.
As long God is God…
As long as any politicians’ policies are hurting the very people God wants healed and helped and lifted up, we can’t and won’t be silent anymore!
We say to America, You have made a promise: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
What a day, what a day this will be! So until this promise is realized, we declare that this promise is non-negotiable, and we won’t be silent, unseen or unheard anymore!