Poor People's Campaign Rally Calls for Answers to Nation's Poverty

By Paul R. Pace

people at rally holding Social Workers for Justice posters

Attending the Poor People's Assembly and March are, from left, NASW President Mit Joyner; Debbie Weinstein, Executive Director of the Coalition on Human Needs; NASW CEO Angelo McClain; Sarah Butts, NASW Director of Public Policy; Dina Kastner, NASW Senior Field Organizer

There are 140 million poor and low-income people in the U.S., and as long as America ignores this statistic and refuses to fully address it, we all live in an impoverished democracy, say organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC).

NASW leaders and staff participated in the PPC’s assembly and march in Washington, D.C., in June to support and raise awareness of its mission. Officially called the Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls, the event brought together PPC leaders and supporters from across the country to share their stories and to push for change. NASW is an official partner with the PPC. 

The guiding principles of the organization include a commitment to the preservation of democracy; to lifting up and deepening the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism and institutionalized oppression; and to elevate the essential needs of individuals and communities affected by systemic poverty.

The Rev. Bernice A. King, daughter of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, spoke at the event at the nation’s capital.

“Fifty-four years ago, my father launched the Poor People’s Campaign to revolutionize the economic landscape of our nation,” she told the crowd. “Unfortunately, 
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not live long enough to see it come to fruition. However, on June 19, 1968, my mother, Coretta Scott King, was here in our nation’s capital to deliver a very powerful message on poverty. She stated, and I quote, ‘Too long we have suffered tireless platitudes and made faulty promises to our less fortunate.’”

Bernice King said her mother made the appeal that “poverty is not only a long-standing evil of the nation but an actual act of violence against the dignity, livelihood and humanity of its citizens.”

“Fifty-four years later, poverty still has a grip on the soul of our nation,” King said. “So today, as the bearer of my parents’ legacy, and as the CEO of the King Center, I join in solidarity with the poorest of voices that say, ‘We won’t be silenced anymore.’”

“We have a moral responsibility to speak up, to stand up, to show up and never shut up until all of our brothers and sisters can rise from the shackles of oppression, depression, suppression and the real violence of poverty,” she said. “Until they are set free to live with the dignity of a livable wage, human living conditions, just working conditions, access to affordable health care and housing, the freedom to participate in government, the freedom prosper in life, and the freedom to peacefully co-exist.”

“For those that would argue there is a deficit of human resources, my response is absolutely not,” King said. “The deficit is in human will.”

She said her father called for a radical redistribution of wealth 54 years ago.

“I make that same call to our nation today,” she said. “And do not be fooled that the issue of poverty is someone else’s problem. As my father said, we are caught in an inescapable network of neutrality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“If the current economic crisis or my sisters’ and brothers’ stories today haven’t put you on notice, let me inform all people of goodwill that poverty won’t stop at low-income workers,” she said, but will consume more people, beget more violence, and disenfranchise others until the nation commits to dismantle it.

Too many systems have sought to silence the voices, but we refuse to let the silences remain, King said. “Keep sharing your stories, my brothers and sisters. Keep standing up and speaking out. Keep your eyes on the prize and know that God almighty 
is with us....”

The Third Reconstruction

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, also spoke at the event. He noted that lawmakers need to support H.R. 43 — Third Reconstruction: Fully addressing poverty and low wages from the bottom up.

“We cannot walk away from the right to vote,” Barber said. “They want you to do that because they know how powerful it is. And they know how powerful it is that poor 
and low-income people decide how we are going 
to move in a massive way.”

“We say to America, you’ve got to years to do some fundamental changes to living wages and raising child income tax credits, and health care or we will be back — not just in D.C. but in every street and back road of America with massive nonviolence, civil disobedience rooted in love and truth, but we are not taking no for an answer, and we won’t be silent anymore.” 

The PPC is asking America to guarantee:

  • Living wages, adequate incomes, inclusive welfare programs and the right to form and join unions
  • Universal, quality and affordable health care, housing, water, utilities and public education 
  • Expanded voting rights, civil rights, access to democracy and equal protection under the law 
  • Fair taxation of the wealthy, corporations 
and Wall Street 
  • Relief for student debt, medical debt and other debts that cannot be paid 
  • An updated poverty measure that reflects a decent standard of living in today’s economy 
  • Comprehensive and just immigration reform 
  • The rights of Indigenous and Native people and tribal nations 
  • A climate agenda that ensures a swift transition to a green economy and prioritizes poor and low-income frontline communities 
  • A world committed to peace rather than violence, incarceration, militarism and war.

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