The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Poor People’s Campaign marches, rallies in District

Thousands gather to call attention to issues that disproportionately impact those in poverty

Participants in the Poor People's Campaign rally in Washington on Saturday. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

A previous version of this article misquoted the Rev. William J. Barber II, a rally speaker, describing the movement as a restoration. He called it a resurrection. The article has been corrected.

Thousands gathered Saturday in downtown Washington for a rally to call attention to a wide range of issues disproportionately affecting poor and low-income Americans, including health care, housing, gun violence, abortion rights and labor conditions.

Participants began at Freedom Plaza and marched along Pennsylvania Avenue for the Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington. Many hoisted signs with messages such as “homes not drones,” “let’s smash capitalism together,” and “reparations not occupation” — words reflecting the myriad causes and concerns that drew attendees from across the country.

With gospel music blasting from the stage and a strong breeze blowing, they rallied within sight of the Capitol. It was a crowd with a diverse mix of Black and White, Latino and Asian, young families with babies, retirees, union members and college students. The speakers cycling to and from the stage addressed a range of topics including environmental justice, challenges faced by Indigenous people, gun violence and gentrification.

Instead of being presented as a grab-bag of competing progressive causes, Saturday’s event bridged different agendas and platforms with a universal call for reform and change of the political status quo.

“We are not an insurrection,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, a North Carolina preacher who is co-chair of the organizing group, the Poor People’s Campaign, a resurgence of the movement organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before his death in 1968.

“But we are a resurrection!”

Jessica Foster was among the first to arrive Saturday morning at Freedom Plaza. She recalled a quote from her grandmother: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

The 32-year-old got involved after marching in Annapolis — where she lives — in February to draw the attention of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to poverty issues.

“Being poor is hard,” Foster said. “The homeless are the most vulnerable and at the bottom of the food chain. This march is one of the best ways to bring attention to that issue.”

A sense of urgency propelled Scott Warren, 65, to travel from Lincoln, Calif.

“I think the country is in grave peril,” Warren said. “Democracy is under threat.”

Like Warren, many in the crowd were longtime activists and organizers who have demonstrated for years for a variety of progressive causes, from antiwar platforms to civil rights to police reform. Many expressed the fear that those ideals are under threat.

Rev. William Barber builds a moral movement

Barber said leaders have found inspiration in studying the activism of King and other leaders in the civil rights movement. Saturday’s event precedes Juneteenth, a day that has come to symbolize the end of slavery in the United States.

This is an urgent moment, Barber has said, in which poor and low-income people are disproportionately affected in areas such as health care, housing, gun violence, abortion rights, labor conditions, white supremacy and racism, immigration, the climate crisis and voting restrictions. Inflation is also rising at its fastest pace in four decades, leaving no respite for people who were already struggling to buy groceries, pay for gas or make rent.

D.C. prepares for Poor People's Campaign rally, Juneteenth

Barber has said the movement aims to bring together people across race, ethnicity, religion and region, as King’s work did, to “shift the moral narrative” and mobilize a voting bloc of poor people who can influence policy everywhere from their hometowns to the U.S. Capitol and White House.

Amid the lemon-yellow banners and signs waved Saturday to represent the movement, a group of women stood out in fuchsia.

Cynthia Papermaster, 75, carried a bright pink parasol bearing the message “cut the Pentagon, fund the planet,” while walking her dog, Lucky, also clad in purplish-pink. She’s a coordinator for the San Francisco chapter of Code Pink, a grass-roots organization aiming to end U.S. wars and military spending.

Over her 15 years with the organization, she said, she has found it increasingly difficult to stay hopeful as military spending continues to take money that she says could go toward affordable housing and health care.

“Weapons are really one of the roots of all this inequality,” she said. Papermaster said that although protests are a great way to show support, real change will come in the voting booths.

“We need to elect people to Congress because that’s where the federal budgeting decisions are made,” she said. “And as the Poor People’s Campaign says, that budget is a moral document.”

On the side of Pennsylvania Avenue, young members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation waved banners, including one reading “honor King, fight for socialism.”

“What Dr. King called the third evil was the fight against militarism, and we’re out here to honor that legacy in that regard,” said Benjamin Zinevich, a 25-year-old member of the party. “We believe that it’s the youth that have the sort of idealism and the power and the ability to make the change that we see that throughout history with civil rights.”

Members of the North Carolina chapter of White Coats for Social and Health Justice, a group of doctors and medical professionals, traveled to Washington to lend their support.

“Poverty is a public health problem,” said Howard Eisenson, a doctor from Durham, N.C. “The problem with physicians is too often we stick to our exam rooms and operating theaters and don’t get out and support organizations fighting for affordable housing, quality education, environmental Justice and other platforms.”

At one point, the crowd cheered as the speaker onstage spoke about the fight to end homelessness. In the midst of the massive gathering, Walter Hales gripped his sign as the wind picked up.

Hales, 71, from Pittsburgh, joined the Poor People’s Campaign last September and is also part of the Black Political Empowerment Project. He believes advocating for those in poverty is the most prevalent issue of the day.

“It’s an intersectional issue that energizes racism and causes families to fall apart,” Hales said. “But it affects education and hurts those who can’t participate in a democracy.”

Those gathering Saturday, Barber said previously, came to support the 140 million people who are poor and low-income, according to the organization’s analysis of the census’s supplemental poverty measure. His group held a memorial service Friday night at the Lincoln Memorial to mourn the more than 1 million Americans who have died of covid-19.

Barber’s organization is advocating for what he calls a Third Reconstruction, an agenda that includes changing the poverty measure to reflect current costs of living, providing paid family and medical leave for all workers, ending all evictions, and raising the minimum wage.

This revival of the Poor People’s Campaign, focusing on how some of the most pressing issues of today affect the poorest Americans, has organized protests in the nation’s capital for years.

50 years later, the new Poor People’s Campaign lays out a political strategy beyond its Washington rally

Organizers launched 40 days of protest and civil disobedience across the country leading up to a 2018 rally on the Mall to commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Resurrection City,” when thousands of people camped out on the Mall in 1968 to fight poverty.

Barber has also spoken at the annual March on Washington, to honor King’s historic demonstration. He was arrested alongside the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson outside the Capitol last summer while at a protest demanding that Congress end the filibuster, protect voting rights and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

“We know the problem is the lack of political and moral will. This is a redemptive movement, rooted deeply in love and justice and truth. Saturday is not a day; it is not just a march; it is a declaration,” Barber said. “We won’t be silenced, and we won’t be unseen anymore.”

Pastel peace signs and rainbow hearts written in chalk adorned Pennsylvania Avenue. Hermione Rhones, a 56-year-old D.C. native, had just written the words “love” and “vote” on the pavement.

“I’m a Washingtonian, I care about my city. It matters to me that people can’t afford to live here when they want to.”

Rhones herself struggled to find affordable housing here when she returned after attending school.

“I couldn’t really afford to live in a D.C. suburb, and didn’t even consider moving back into D.C. because I just didn’t feel like it was affordable for me,” she said. She was able to manage it after a friend offered her a discounted rent, she said.

Mary Anne Perrone came from Michigan. The climate crisis was foremost on her mind, but she sees many issues as “connected.” And while she said she’s seen strong action in her home state, Perrone said more needs to be done on the national level to help people “on the margins of society.”

“There’s a lot that can be done and a lot that can be undone,” Perrone said, “but I believe this campaign’s consciousness is growing and unstoppable.”

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.