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The New Poor People’s Campaign Isn’t Just a Comeback, It’s a Revival

“When we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”

“When we come to Washington in this campaign, we are coming to get our check.”

When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke these words, the miserable living and working conditions of the poor animated his activism. He toured the South raising awareness (and money) for a campaign that would march to Washington demanding full employment, a guaranteed income, and decent, low-cost housing for all.

Combined with his anti-Vietnam War rhetoric, Dr. King’s advocacy on behalf of the economically downtrodden alienated President Lyndon Johnson and many of the allies that supported him just a few years earlier. Funding for his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, through which he and others won civil rights victories, lagged, putting the organization in financial straits. It appeared his former adherents had a higher tolerance for poverty than for racism.

Dr. King was slain in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968 as he stood in solidarity with the strike of the city’s sanitation workers. The Poor People’s Campaign, weeks from a scheduled occupation of the National Mall in Washington, was thrown into a disarray from which it has not recovered. Until now.

“What doth the Lord require but to do justice,” Rev. William J. Barber intones to the live audience at the Howard Theater in Washington and viewers around the globe. The Poor People’s Campaign (PPC), revived by Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, kicked off on Monday promising to disrupt the status quo in favor of the chronically disfavored. Its stated principles include a call to move America’s economy from a “war economy” to a “peace economy,” an emphasis on state and local action and organization, and a willingness to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience reminiscent of the Civil Rights Era.

The congregation at Union Church of Los Angeles, a Skid Row refuge, genuflects at Barber’s livestreamed direction. As the woman by his side sings solemnly over minor chords, the reverend reminds listeners of the societal ills compelling the campaign. “Children with lead in their water.” “Six trillion dollars spent at war when they should’ve been spent on living wages.”

The Union Church attendees, deep in reflection, mirror the diverse city to which they intend to bring progressive change. Blacks, Chicanxs, Asian-Americans, whites; young women in pantsuits, graying men in reflective vests and boots, an elder gentleman using a walker; dozens of Fight for 15 t-shirts, a veteran’s hat, and a few clerical collars. The multiplicity in this space stands out, which by design or defect eludes most advocacy groups.

When the song ends, TV man Van Jones resumes his MC duties and the service moves onto more performances. The Angelenos across the continent take a food break.

“All we have to do is come together and let the politicians, the city, the mayor and all government branches know that we the people who vote them in [won’t] stand for low wages,” asserts Bruce Jefferson, a warehouse worker attempting to organize his colleagues. “Everything that’s in a person’s home comes through my hands. Without those things one doesn’t live, there’s no survival. I barely make enough to where I can keep food on my table, help me, my wife, my family, survive.” Jefferson’s equanimity in describing his trials testifies to the crushing familiarity of American precarity. “With the Poor People’s Campaign, we push it where we can get some dignity and respect, that’s what it’s all about.”

Collars of a lighter shade also represent themselves in the church. Rigo Vasquez, a Mexican-born lawyer, echoes the campaign’s motto, “A National Call for Moral Revival.” He says, “This campaign for a moral revival of our country is exactly, I think, what we need where profits have overtaken morality.” Vazquez refers to an apparent tactic of the movement: appeal to the conscience in order to jostle the professional class out of its stupefying reverence of capital. Perhaps it’s a subtle acknowledgement that a successful anti-poverty effort requires class traitors who choose compassion over money.

The early evening meal is fittingly spartan but flavorful, stew over rice and kale slaw for everyone. One of the organizers of the event, Kait Ziegler, serves the people with a wide smile and generous portions. A co-founder of LA’s version of Rev. Barber’s Moral Mondays, she has an ambitious outlook on the PPC, “I want an inclusive and intersectional campaign where thousands of people join California so that we can all define what we want.” She foresees the formation of a partnership spanning disparate social justice organizations with the common goal of ending poverty. “This is a massive opportunity to build a fusion coalition in California like we’ve never seen.”

Back in the sanctuary, the stream from Washington chugs along. The Skid Row pews once dense with souls provide ample elbow room for the die-hards. The people decided to delight in their own company.

Felipe Caceres, a labor organizer, stuck around to watch the broadcast. He wishes that the PPC “build something here in California to drive the agenda with poor people at the forefront speaking for themselves because they’re empowered. They need to continue to be in the forefront so the people understand who’s affected by public policy.” That wealthy ice cream hippies Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield addressed the masses from Washington as Caceres spoke is a conspicuous coincidence.

As the event in LA draws to a close, Rev. Eddie Anderson, a leader of California’s PPC and Senior Pastor at McCarty Memorial Christian Church, maintained his spirits after coordinating a sizeable event and greeting and conversing with dozens of people. After Monday, he says, “the California Campaign will be coordinating with the national campaign around [addressing] the four main pillars of racism, militarism, environmental degradation and poverty.” Regarding strategy, Rev. Anderson reveals, “We will be traveling to the capitol, Sacramento, for 40 days of non-violent direct action in the spring in coordination with movements and caravans across the country.”

Dr. King often sought direct redress at state and national capitals. He wasn’t always safe, he wasn’t always well supported, and he didn’t always win, but the powerful always heard him. On Monday night, hundreds of activists, rich and poor, young and old, black, white and everyone in between decided they will be heard, and they’re taking the fight against poverty straight to the top.