In the last months of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. was increasingly concerned about economic justice for all people, from southern sharecroppers to Appalachian coal miners, and the working poor of all races and religions. In the fall of 1967, he announced the formation of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), which demanded a decent and dignified life for all Americans.
Dr. King planned a Poor People’s March on Washington for the spring of 1968, in an effort to unite the poor, and gain political power for them. He was assassinated a month before the march. His grieving widow — Coretta Scott King, a graduate of Antioch College — helped lead the march, but in many ways, the PPC movement died with him.
Fifty years later, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, has been revived by another southern minister, Rev. Dr. William Barber II. Like Dr. King before him, Rev. Barber believes that systemic poverty, racism and militarism are interlocking injustices keeping the poor oppressed. With the renewal of the PPC, Barber added ecological destruction and religious nationalism to the list of intertwined injustices.
Rev. Barber said despite the fact that economic disparity is growing, with 140 million Americans living in poverty, the word “poverty” is rarely used in our political discourse. The “middle class” tends to get all the attention, he says. To change the narrative during this year’s presidential election, Rev. Barber launched the "We Must Do MORE" national tour to run through the presidential primary season, leading to a Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on the nation’s capital this summer. Dayton was selected as the only Ohio stop on the 25-state tour.
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While Dayton is certainly accessible with interstates 70 and 75, that’s not the only reason the city was selected. Between the KKK rally, tornadoes, mass shooting and a history of racial and economic segregation, Dayton has experienced first-hand the very interlocking injustices the movement seeks to shine a light upon.
Rev. Barber, along with his co-chair Liz Theoharis, planned to lead the Dayton “Moral March & Mass Meeting” on Thursday April 23, at the Tabernacle Baptist Church on South Broadway Street. Community organizers here in Dayton, and across the state, worked tirelessly to plan the event.
Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the entire PPC tour had to be canceled, including the Dayton and Washington, D.C., marches. In fact, the entire concept of the movement has had to be re-imagined. Leaders are pivoting to take the movement online, with a virtual event scheduled for June 20.
“We are transforming,” Mary Aguilera, the Ohio Poor People’s Campaign co-chair, explained. “Hopefully the June 20th event will be the largest digital mass meeting ever. We are trying to lift up all these issues, especially now with the health crisis, when a large percentage of the country now is living the life that people in poverty live every day.”
“It's been pretty stunning to see those miles and miles of Americans waiting for food from food pantries, and a lot of them have never been to a food pantry ever before,” Aguilera said. “I think people are understanding we need to have social safety nets.”
Whether people are experiencing poverty for the first time, or have been poor throughout their lives, PPC leaders are encouraging all to unite online on June 20, 2020 to make their voices heard. “So many Americans seem to be voiceless because they're not wealthy. They don't have lobbyists,” Aguilera said. “They're not the people who have spare time between taking buses to their three jobs to be writing Congress.”
How this is all going to manifest online is still being determined. “The PPC leadership is trying to find the best way to make it the great experience for everyone, because it is so important that we all come together,” Aguilera said. “Rev. Barber says you can be woke, but if you don't get out of bed and do something about it, it's not going to change.”
Collectively, the campaign wants legislators to enact living-wage laws, a single-payer health-care system, equity in education, an end to mass incarceration, and the protection of the right to vote. To learn more about the PPC, visit poorpeoplescampaign.org.