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.
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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.
Four hundred workers—most of them African American—refused to return to their jobs until management reinstated the 12 workers and recognized their union. They didn’t get the union, but they did hold out and march with thousands of people—including some doctors—until they broke the hospital president who had said he wouldn’t rehire the “uneducated women.” Brown and her colleagues returned to their jobs.
“It was very hard, very tiresome,” said Brown, who had three young daughters at the time. The family was kicked out of their apartment and Emanuel Church provided them with shelter. “Forty-nine years later, I see the same thing that happened then is happening now—even worse,” Brown said prior to Saturday’s rally on the mall. She points to workers’ needing two jobs just to make rent, record corporate profits while wages remain stagnant, and a dwindling middle class.
Those concerns led her to get involved with McDonald’s workers in their Fight for $15 campaign, and then the Poor People’s Campaign. While Brown said her experiences and treatment in 1969 were based on her being African American, now she says, “Everybody is being mistreated—overworked and underpaid. Seven dollars and twenty-five cents an hour—how can you live?”
“This fight is so different—people of all colors, all walks of life are participating in this,” said Brown.
Brown was arrested on a 100-degree day in June in Columbia, where the South Carolina Poor People’s Campaign delivered a set of demands at the governor’s mansion. “I went to jail in 1969 and I went to jail in 2018,” said Brown. “I’ll do whatever it takes, so long as it’s nonviolent. I’m staying until victory is won.”
AMY JO HUTCHISON, WHEELING, WV: BUILDING A COALITION OF MOMS TO PROTECT THE SAFETY NET
Amy Jo Hutchison, 46, has lived in West Virginia her entire life and “never spent a day out of poverty on some level.”
“Unemployed poverty or working poor,” she said. “And when I was unemployed, SNAP [food stamps] helped me feed my kids. You just can’t do it without the safety net sometimes.”
A single mother of two girls, ages 14 and 11, Hutchison has a bachelor’s degree and previously worked as a Head Start teacher. She is now an organizer for Our Children, Our Future, which is spearheading a campaign to end child poverty in a state where about 30 percent of children under age 6 live below the federal poverty line. Hutchison does some lobbying and policy work at the state level, but said her “passion is organizing low-income moms.”
“They have it in them,” Hutchinson said. “Sometimes people just need someone to say, ‘Hey, I believe in you. Let’s do this together.’” Her work organizing directly impacted people to protect the safety net was a natural fit with the Poor People’s Campaign, which is focused on breaking through historical racial divides that have kept white people in poverty from working with people of color in poverty. “Politicians have set it up to keep us pitted against one another—from Jim Crow on,” said Hutchison. “To change that you have to have boots on the ground—have conversations and establish relationships so you can begin to say, ‘Look, we’re all in the same boat.’” These conversations include Trump voters, who she says believed him during the presidential campaign when he said he was bringing coal back. “Since I’m directly impacted I can go in there and say, ‘I know what this is like, and we’re being hoodwinked,’” said Hutchison.
Hutchison organizes in 20 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, and her approach is to find a contact who can get her “a foot in the door” in a new community. Her goal is to set up a meeting with five mothers, which will lead to a referral and another meeting with five more, and so on. It’s a model that has helped the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign establish a formidable presence at the state capitol over the past six weeks, as residents fight to protect a safety net that is under constant threat.
Earlier this year, the governor imposed work requirements for food assistance, despite the state’s own study suggesting that it doesn’t help workers find employment; during a nine-county pilot project, there was also a spike in demand at food pantries. But recently, with the help of low-income mothers testifying at the state capitol, the legislature raised SNAP eligibility from 130 percent of the poverty line to 200 percent.
“That was a huge win,” Hutchison said. “With that we bring in thousands of working poor to make them SNAP-eligible since they aren’t paid enough to make ends meet.”
Now Hutchison has her sights on working with the Poor People’s Campaign on voter registration and mobilization, continuing to grow the coalition of mothers, and resisting the latest proposals from congressional Republicans to cut food assistance, children’s health care, and repeal the Affordable Care Act.
GG MORGAN, HARLEM, NY: HOMELESS AND FIGHTING FOR HOUSING AS A HUMAN RIGHT
In December, GG Morgan read an article about Reverend Barber and the new Poor People’s Campaign. She was familiar with him from his remarks at the 2016 Democratic Convention, and knew of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work on the original effort in 1968. The revived campaign was timely: She’d become homeless for the first time about six months earlier and moved into a women’s shelter in Harlem, where she still resides today. She signed up to get involved.
“I’m one of 89,000 people in shelters in the state,” said Morgan, who described her age as around 50. “Rents are skyrocketing, and every time you turn around there are more luxury condos going up, but nothing that’s affordable.” She said people of color and the working poor are being “pushed out and priced out” of their communities in what she calls “the worst housing crisis since the Great Depression.” A recent study indicated that in 2016 more than half of low-income households in New York City spent 30–50 percent of their income on rent.
In February, Morgan helped launch the New York Poor People’s Campaign by sharing her story at a press conference in Albany, and helping to deliver a letter to elected officials about poverty and voter suppression nationwide. She told The Nation that although she was new to activism she “long had a heart for justice.” Prior to becoming homeless, she would frequently visit shelters to serve meals. Seeing people sleeping in the streets, or on benches, or in the subways deeply affected her. “But I never thought it could be me, until it became me,” she said.
Morgan is now an organizer with Voices of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), a statewide membership organization that helps build power for low-income New Yorkers impacted by HIV/AIDS, mass incarceration, the drug war, and homelessness. A lot of the group’s work overlaps with the work of the New York Poor People’s Campaign. “We’re trying to get homeless people to know that they have a voice,” she said, “and when we go to Albany where decisions are made and money is allocated we can voice our opinions and share our stories about what is happening.”
Morgan said the housing solutions she and the campaign are focused on include raising revenue by closing the carried-interest loophole, a tax break that benefits millionaires and billionaires, and a new Home Stability Support grant that would help people make rent.
“Working people, poor people need decent housing, decent education, decent wages, decent health care—is that asking for so much in the richest nation?” said Morgan. “This Poor People’s Campaign—a call for moral revival—is what’s going to get the heart and soul of America back.”
In the months ahead the campaign will pivot to power-building, voter registration, voter mobilization, and, as necessary, civil disobedience. The activists have already made their presence felt in 40 state capitals and the District, becoming what they call “a new, unsettling force.”
This is exactly where the organizers hoped they would be just 40 days in. As campaign co-chair the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis put it, “When we look at the history of social change in this country, it’s when those that are most impacted band together with clergy, moral leaders, and other activists—and commit themselves to being the foundation for larger scale transformation—only when you start there can you see real justice coming into society.”
This article was produced in partnership with The Nation.