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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Revived 'Poor People's Campaign' Unites to Challenge Systemic Racism and Poverty

Co-founded by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Poor People's Campaign is uniting low-income people from across the U.S. in a rallying cry against systemic racism, poverty and oppression.
By Mary Mazzoni
Poor Peoples Campaign end systemic racism and poverty

(Image: Demonstrators led by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II (second from left) and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis (third from left) march on Washington in June 2018 in support of the Poor People's Campaign and its mission to end systemic racism and poverty.) 

Today the nation observes Juneteenth, celebrated annually to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, but the moral, economic and social stains of slavery never left us.

By the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, Black Americans were still being held in bondage by Jim Crow laws, which enforced segregation and barred millions of people from social equality and economic prosperity. Along with his leadership in the movement, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was adamant in his fight against systemic poverty and oppression in all forms. His rallying cry to unite poor and impacted communities across the country, shared with countless other grassroots organizers and religious leaders, took on the name the Poor People's Campaign.  

Revived under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the Poor People's Campaign is still fighting the good fight against systemic racism, poverty, and capitalist systems they say prioritize militarization and environmental destruction over people. 

This week, the Poor People's Campaign will extend Juneteenth celebrations into the weekend, with a digital assembly and Moral March on Washington on Saturday, June 20. 

The Poor People's Campaign unites a movement against systemic racism and poverty

On Saturday, low-income people from more than 40 states will unite under the Campaign's mission statement, "A National Call for Moral Revival." They'll hear stories from people protesting systemic racism and struggling through poverty during a digital assembly, and thousands will march on Washington to demand change. 

Hundreds of organizations, including 14 national labor unions, 16 religious denominations and dozens of civil rights groups, will take part in the event, which will be live-streamed on MSNBC. 

The day’s focus will be on "poor and low-income people who demand that their voices be heard," according to the Campaign. Those sharing their stories include Midwestern service workers who have worked through the coronavirus pandemic without protective equipment; families affected by police brutality; a coal miner from Appalachia; mothers who have lost children due to lack of health care; residents of the highly polluted region dubbed Cancer Alley in Louisiana; and an Apache elder who is petitioning the federal government to stop a corporation from destroying a sacred site in Arizona. 

“The numbers of people suffering in this the richest nation in the world is already increasing and deepening as the effects of the pandemic, recession, and racist and anti-poor policies continue to hurt poor and low-income people the hardest,” Rev. Theoharis said in a statement. “On June 20, poor and impacted people will come together to tell the nation what it means to not have enough food to eat, to wonder how to keep a roof over your family’s head, and to have to choose between risking your life by going to work or staying at home and not getting paid."

A policy agenda for real change 

Marchers will demand action on a specific policy agenda that brings the fight against poverty, racism and over-militarization together with campaigns to protect the environment and make it livable for all. Grounded in a 2020 report entitled The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America, the agenda focuses on five core justice issues: "systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and a distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism."

"We will share the bold and visionary demands people are putting forth that can solve these grave injustices and the powerful and creative resistance of people organizing across the country," Rev. Theoharis said. "History shows that when those most impacted by injustice come together in a powerful movement, that this country can indeed change for the better. Those whose backs are against the wall are pushing this whole nation toward justice today."

This is the third annual march hosted by the revived Campaign, and the changes that have occurred since it first descended on the National Mall in 2018 played an integral role in the agenda.

"A pandemic hit and exposed the wounds of racism and poverty, and a lynching by police of a black man on camera poured salt in the wound, which makes our call for a moral fusion coalition of all people to address five interlocking injustices even the more relevant,” Rev. Barber said in a statement. “As we deal with the on-camera murder of George Floyd by racist policing, we must also recognize that many public policies have an ugly ‘DM’ — death measurement. When we look at their impact, they disproportionately kill black people and poor people. We must demand that these inequalities be addressed by policies, and we refuse to accept death anymore.” 

The effects of these "high DM" policies can be felt in all corners of society — from the homes of working families, to the halls of public schools, to the board rooms of corporate America, as detailed in the Auditing America report. 

The Poor People's Campaign has laid out a clear call-to-action and a policy agenda to back it up. The question is: Will decision-makers in Washington, on K Street and on Wall Street listen? 

Image credits: Susan Melkisethian (1 and 2) via Flickr

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni