Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
On Saturday, 50 years after the Poor People’s Campaign first took to Washington, the advocacy group started by Martin Luther King gathered again in the capital to continue his fight.
For 43 days in 1968, Washington’s National Mall was transformed into a protestor’s shantytown. Approximately 3,000 people moved into tents and makeshift structures lining the grass between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol to create Resurrection City. Activists camped to advocate for better wages, better social services, and affordable housing for the poor. The thousands of protestors were part of a new group called the Poor People’s Campaign, a coalition organized by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. before his assassination.
“This will be no mere one-day march in Washington,” King said of his vision for the event and the campaign, the fruits of which he would never see. “But a trek to the nation’s capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will go to stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor.”
Today, the Poor People’s Campaign that began in ‘68 has been reborn, with an even more expansive mission: To advocate not only for the 43 million Americans living in poverty, but for the undocumented immigrants being torn from their families at the border; for the disenfranchised voters; for the incarcerated; and for climate refugees. After six week of national acts of civil disobedience, working people representing 40 states according to the organizers, gathered in Washington, D.C. on Saturday to celebrate Resurrection City’s anniversary and to reaffirm its vision.
On the eve of the event, organizers had estimated a crowd of 2,000, far fewer than the 3,000 who showed up to the first Resurrection City—but by Saturday afternoon, organizers say the real count had swelled to 10,000. It was a gloomy day, and the group was visibly sparser than the shoulder-to-shoulder throng that filled the Mall for the first annual Women’s March in 2017, which drew an estimated 500,000 to one million to Washington, or the more recent March For Our Lives, which drew around 850,000. But, as Rev. William Barber, one of the co-organizers of the march, told The Washington Post on the morning of the rally, “If we had chosen to do a commemoration of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, we could have had a huge commemoration, thousands of people, a big rally on the Mall. But we did not want to do that. We’re building something new.”
“It is not a commemoration of what happened in 1968 but a reengagement of that,” he added in a press call. “Because of the times in which we live.”
Many of the elements of this reengagement have had whiffs of that 1968 spirit—much more so than the slick, teen-led March for Our Lives, which featured performances from Miley Cyrus and Broadway stars alongside the powerful anti-gun violence testimonies. The 40 prior days of civic disobedience commenced in May, and sent protesting activists to state capitols around the country—during its kick-off event in D.C. on May 14, 146 people were arrested, including co-organizers Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis. During other May kick-off events across the country in Jefferson City, Raleigh, Des Moines and Indianapolis, more than 150 others were jailed, too—among them, 83-year old Louise Brown, who organized the 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike. (“I went to jail in 1969 and I went to jail in 2018,” she proclaimed proudly at Saturday’s march.) And concurrent to the final march on Saturday, Poor People’s Campaign protestors were arrested in Seattle as they blocked traffic in a parallel action with the event in Washington.
“We took those streets to say that we’re headed in the wrong direction as a nation,” Barber told The Washington Post after he was released in May. “We believe something worse is being done than our blocking traffic for an hour. … The Constitution says, ‘Establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility.’ Those promises are being broken.”
The campaign wants to push Congress again to fulfill those promises. After two years of listening tours beginning in 2016, during which leaders found “that, in many ways, we are worse off than we were in 1968,” they drafted a Moral Agenda, which targets five key areas for change: systemic racism, with goals of criminal justice reform and reducing voter disenfranchisement; poverty, including reforming federal tax laws and implementing federal and state living wage laws; ecological devastation, including securing clean water for all; the war economy; and what they call, “our distorted moral narrative.”
It’s an intersectional agenda, says Barber—meant not only to bring together white and black and brown; Republicans and Democrats; but to link issues that aren’t always in conversation. “This business of snatching children and locking them up is at the center,” he said Friday. “That is an ugly metaphor of what is happening in our country by those who want to snatch opportunities from the poor.”
But it was alleviating that poverty that many of the speakers emphasized. “[In D.C.], a worker would have to earn $34 an hour just to afford the $1800 for a two-bedroom. The average house costs $400,000,” said a representative from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) who spoke at the march. “D.C. lacks affordable housing.”
“In 1969 you could rent a house for $50,” added Louise Brown. “Today, how you can you survive? Fifteen dollars an hour is a start, but we need to go up, not down.”
While the policy goals are aligned with the platforms of many Democratic officials, no sitting politicians took the stage Saturday. But in Congress, some people are listening: In response to the first five weeks of protests, Representative Elijah Cummings and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has been floated as a 2020 presidential candidate, organized a Capitol Hill hearing on poverty. In front of an audience including U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker, Poor People’s Campaign organizers testified on their experiences raising a family as an undocumented worker; caring for children without adequate Medicaid coverage; struggling with opioid addition as a homeless veteran; living in Flint without clean water.
The group attending Saturday’s rally also reflected the diversity of America’s poor, and the breadth of their needs. A group of steel workers from Pittsburgh in the crowd stood just beside AFCSME members like Andre Faison, who was eight at the time of the first Poor People’s Campaign protests and now works as a mechanic for city vehicles in Baltimore. “We’re not here to advocate for unions,” said Ross McClellan, who’s been a steel worker for 26 years. “We’re here to advocate for all people.”
Beside the stage, activists from Kentucky in Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind costumes waved their paper mâché arms and posed for pictures with children—they wear these “Puppets for Moral Revival” outfits every Monday at a local Kentucky church, Selena McCracken, who dressed as Water, told me. “I’m honored to be part of a group that is mobilizing with indigenous people,” she said. “And fighting racism and ecological devastation.”
And in the middle of the crowd, Patricia Butler, a Washington, D.C.-raised government worker, stood facing the stage, rapt. She was there alone, leaning on a long wooden walking stick, elegantly dressed among a sea of t-shirts, in a long grey trench coat and black wide-brimmed hat. When I asked Butler why she was there, she told me she was meant to be.
In 1968, she rallied at the original Resurrection City. The day she remembers most vividly was a muddy one, and while at 16 she wasn’t a seasoned organizer, she was sent to buy overalls for Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who had taken up leadership of the movement after King’s death. On Saturday, she was there to watch speeches from people like Jesse Jackson—civil rights leaders who helped Abernathy with the original campaign, and who helmed a similar stage 50 years ago—as well as a new guard of organizers from labor unions and grassroots non-profits.
“I feel I have to be here. There’s a great need for us to be here for those who can’t speak,” Butler said. “It’s a new day, but we’re still asking for almost the same thing.”
The real test of whether they can get what they’re asking for will come at the polls. When Jesse Jackson took the stage to deliver that message, almost everything he chanted was echoed back to him by the crowd.
“We’re poor but rich in votes. Poor but rich in dreams. Poor but rich in aspirations,” he said, and the words reverberated. “I am somebody,” he roared, and the crowd roared back.
“I can vote, I must vote, I will vote,” Jackson continued. “I can march, I must march, I will march.” Soon after, they marched. Thousands of people—steel workers and mechanics and students and teachers and activists and allies—took the streets, walking from the Mall to the White House.
And soon after this, they’ll have the chance to vote. While the 40 days of action have ended, Barber says, the fight will continue in organizers’ home states, where they’ll push to register voters to swing the ballots in November. “This is a commencing, not a commencement,” he said. “A beginning, not an ending.”