Before the sun rose on the final morning of a 40-day protest blitz for poor people’s rights, the Rev. William Barber was wide awake.
He was intently watching the television in his Washington hotel room, scanning the crawl of headlines for the latest in the Trump administration’s efforts to enforce a “zero tolerance” immigration policy that separated more than 2,500 immigrant children from their parents.
As he watched, Barber shook his head, closed his eyes, gathered his thoughts.
“We need to take the risk of believing that people have not lost their humanity,” he said Thursday. “Lots of people — poor people, white people, black people, Latinos — they’ve been bamboozled into thinking we’re all on different teams. We need to love them enough to go there and show them the truth.”
This idea is at the core of the new Poor People’s Campaign, the resurrection of a movement organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before his death in 1968: Meet people where they are and trust that given facts and, yes, love, they will see the intricate web of issues that connect poverty, racism and voter suppression.
It is a belief that Barber and his co-organizer, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, said will guide them as they build a voting bloc of poor people who can lobby for legislation on a local and national scale.
On Saturday, the group will hold a rally on the Mall that organizers expect to draw about 2,000 people — far fewer than the number who protested and pitched tents on the same patch of grass 50 years ago in an occupation known as “Resurrection City.”
Participants who came to Washington this week from around the country seemed surprised by the estimate. They wondered, why would it be that low? When asked about Saturday’s turnout, Barber said the rally is almost beside the point. “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,” Barber said. “But we did not want to do that. We’re building something new.”
Since early May, thousands of activists have participated in what Barber and Theoharis call “direct actions” meant to draw attention to myriad causes that affect America’s poor. They held rallies and teach-ins around the country. In a kickoff event, more than 300 people were arrested in the District and state capitals nationwide.
The 40 days of action ended this week in the District with an attempt to “take back” the Capitol and a round of canvassing in Anacostia. Before traveling by train across the river, more than 100 longtime activists and newly minted organizers gathered underground Wednesday at the Archives Metro station, singing and handing out leaflets explaining the Poor People’s Campaign and Saturday’s rally on the Mall.
Some commuters began clapping to an original song that declares, “Somebody’s hurting our children, and it’s gone on far too long.” Others bristled as they were offered fliers, looking over their shoulders to make sure group members weren’t following them into their chosen rail car.
When the group arrived in Anacostia, the members began knocking on doors.
“I came down to D.C. for the 20th anniversary of the Poor People’s Movement, and I was so moved. I had never been to D.C. before. It was powerful,” said Prince Brooks, 66, who works the front desk at the Parkway House apartments in Southeast and greeted canvassers from Kansas, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. “But after that, I don’t know. I never heard anything about it again. And it’s not because there’s no need for a poor people’s movement. Look around.”
Brooks took a stack of leaflets to keep at the desk for residents.
Barber and Theoharis described the next phase of the campaign as an answer to King’s call in his “I Have a Dream” speech — a call to “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
After Saturday’s rally, organizers who trained this week in the District will fan out across the country and begin to build coalitions. They will start in the South, which Barber describes as the states that voted to secede during the Civil War.
Although an emphasis will be put on voter registration and engagement, elections won’t be the sole focus of the effort, Barber said.
“People get caught up in election season and they only organize and engage for that season, but the day after Election Day we are going to continue,” Barber said.
On Wednesday, as minute-by-minute news updates flashed across the TV screen, he began to speak about patience.
The 40 days of demonstrations, he said, were also to show participants and onlookers that activists would not be distracted from their core mission. It is a dedication he hopes to emulate over months, and years, to come.
“We have these mythologies about the civil rights movement, about what it took to bring about change in America,” Barber said. “But none of that happened overnight. You need to have a long-term vision. This right here, this is only our foundation.”