The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 and racial tension among key organizers prevented what had been envisioned as a long-term, multi-ethnic mass movement against government-induced poverty and mass militarism — both of which had, along with racism, marginalized multitudes of people while placing power in the hands of a select few.
Decades later, amid calls for unity against the very forces that have disenfranchised poor people, broken apart families and decimated communities, a coalition numbering in the tens of thousands made a bold moral appeal and demanded that U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle take direct action against economic inequality, police brutality, voting disenfranchisement and other issues of social and economic importance.
“You’re the foundation and the people we invited.” The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, renowned minister and political leader, told a group gathered Thursday, June 21 under a large white tent on the National Mall for an evening of live music, poetry and fiery gospel bearing resemblance to revivals of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Two days later, participants of what’s been touted as the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival returned to the National Mall for the Global Day of Solidarity and Sending Forth Call to Action Mass Rally, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people from the D.C. region and nationwide.
That Thursday evening, unsuccessful attempts to speak with congressional leaders didn’t deter clergy members and activists from around the country, representing various ages, races, faiths, organizations and political causes, from enjoying gospel, jazz and bluegrass music just several feet across the U.S. Capitol, where many of them, including Barber, had been arrested for nonviolent protest.
As the sun slowly set, Barber, who stood on a slim wooden cane at times, spoke loudly into the microphone before hundreds of onlookers, repeatedly promising that efforts to combat the three-headed monster of racism, poverty, and militarism King described would go well beyond Saturday, June 23, the date for the mass rally on the National Mall.
“This is the foundation of this multi-year movement that won’t move when the storm comes,” Barber said from atop the stage area, where Yara Allen, co-director of the arts for the campaign, jazz saxophonist Freddie Green and acoustic movement guitarist David Morris, among others, kept the musical vibes going throughout much of the evening.
“You got a foundation of people who learned to work together for six straight weeks,” Barber said. “You got a foundation of people who are mad at poverty and militarism, not just Trump. You didn’t bow and didn’t quit. You were a part of standing up. That’s the first victory, when we got enough guts to say that things got to change.”
The campaign, the brainchild of Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, kicked off in mid-May, months after the call went out to church communities in more than 30 states to form a coalition against systemic racism, the U.S. military industrial complex, and ecological devastation, among other issues.
Since before Barber resigned as president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP more than a year ago to organize this movement, progressive and civil rights organizations, in a frenzy over President Donald Trump’s rise to the Oval Office, struggled to counter the rollback of laws designed to protect the most vulnerable communities in the United States.
Advocates collectively sighed in relief last week when Trump succumbed to pressure and signed an executive order stopping the Trump administration-mandated separation of families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border for political asylum. For some activists, that small victory paled in comparison to what they say is the administration’s full-on assault on public education, immigration, the ozone layer, federally protected lands, free speech, voting rights, and some semblance of geopolitical stability that hadn’t subsided since Inauguration Day.
For more than a month, protesters, who had organized among themselves in their cities for more than two years, brought attention to these issues at rallies throughout the District. A mass meeting in May at the National City Christian Church in Northwest shed light on the plight of Americans with disabilities living in poverty. Later that month, Poor People’s Campaign participants highlighted links between poverty and voting disenfranchisement at another gathering where they also discussed immigration issues, Muslim xenophobia, and the mistreatment of indigenous communities.
Throughout much of June, organizers also touched on gun violence, inequitable health care, education, housing, and jobs at mass meetings on the National Mall. In between those events, organizers hosted weekly teach-ins at the Festival Center in Northwest where they lectured and provided more context about the rotisserie of policy issues directly affecting various communities.
Though he didn’t attend much of the meetings in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s mass rally, Pastor Stephen “Q” Jmmarie, said he wanted to stand with Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign at a time when the impoverished, regardless of where they live, are enduring conditions that impede their potential to the live fully and happily.
Jmmarie, pastor of The Church without Walls in Los Angeles, said he has intimate knowledge of poverty’s effects from his more than a decade of ministry along Skid Row, the home of more than 2,500 homeless people that’s considered one of the country’s most destitute corridors.
“Skid Row is a microcosm of what happens in our nation. We spend money on the military but don’t feed the poor,” he said.
Jmmarie, 53, and his congregants conferred with Barber six months ago, and joined the contemporary iteration of the Poor People’s Campaign as a show of solidarity with the impoverished across the nation. He counted among the group of protesters who police turned away when they converged on the U.S. Capitol, and requested a meeting with lawmakers.
“They allow lobbyists in the front, but poor people must come in the back. It felt like a thousand cops came toward us. That’s where you see the military system,” Jmmarie added. “Forty percent of the homeless on Skid Row are Black so homelessness is a racism issue. It’s not just about people not having a place to live. There’s a connection between our community and what the people in Flint, Michigan are facing. When Rev. Barber came to Skid Row and asked us to join this movement, we were skeptical but decided to move forward, because we knew there were good things happening when you bring people together from several states,” Jmmarie said.
Unlike many of her colleagues, Donna Cotterrell decided against engaging in nonviolent protest at the U.S. Capitol, out of fear that an arrest record would destroy her chances of getting a job, a choice that spoke to the precarious financial situation affecting some Poor People’s Movement participants, and Americans at large.
Last weekend, Cotterrell pledged to call attention to what she described as the nation’s education crisis, in which people have few opportunities to advance scholastically, and even fewer opportunities at gainful employment, priming them for the prison-industrial complex.
“I’m on both ends of the pipeline, as far as what’s being done to keep the population uneducated and maintain a steady flow of inmates,” said Cotterell, a middle school teacher and Florida Department of Corrections employee.
To Cotterell’s chagrin, the department cut funding allocated to mental health services for inmates.
“Systemic racism and mass incarceration are the New Jim Crow. Congress should stop using education as a weapon against our people. Congress should also stop using race to divide us and give all people a chance at a living wage,” said Cotterrell, a Tallahassee resident and coordinating committee member for the campaign. “Once they did their time, ex-felons should also get back their right to vote,”
The events of this past year were decades in the making.
On Mother’s Day 1968, more than a month after King was gunned down on balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Ralph Abernathy, the newly minted leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and King’s widow Coretta Scott King, a civil rights figure in her own right, led a multitude of Americans to D.C., where more than 5,000 Black people, indigenous Americans, and rural Whites erected “Resurrection City,” a collection of tents and shacks on the National Mall where organizers slept in between their visits to federal offices in support of legislation that would bring economic parity.
For Jazmine Brooks of Gaithersburg, Maryland, the social media chair for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, uniting Americans around poverty, and highlighting the problems that manifest from it, in the manner done a half-century ago, serves a priority in ushering a successful movement against politician who don’t have the best interests of every day people in mind.
“There are so many issues that can all affect one person. It’s all-encompassing,” said Brooks, a member of Metropolitan AME Church in Northwest who took on this endeavor in late 2017 as a ministerial intern assignment.
“I now recognize that the people know they’re wrong, and they’re consciously making decisions that are good for them and their political relationships,” she said. “They’re not trying to hear us, which is why they arrest us. We’re coming for everything that’s ours, matter what, including our human rights and dignity, clean water and air, universal health care, and equal education.”