The lofty goals of a newly revived “Poor People’s Campaign” were announced at news conferences in 33 states and the District on Monday. Eradicating poverty and racism were at the top of the list, as they had been 50 years ago when Martin Luther King Jr. launched the first such campaign.
“With the forces of white supremacy and greed gaining even more influence in Washington and in state houses across the country, the need for a new Poor People’s Campaign is more urgent than ever,” said Rabbi Alana Suskin, a Rockville resident and co-chair of the Maryland campaign. “Policies that promote systemic racism, poverty, a war economy and environmental destruction are threatening our democracy and decaying our national morality.”
But the campaign faced a conundrum, the same as it had in King’s day: How could activists expect to successfully tackle racism and poverty when the nation’s economic and political systems were rooted in racism and designed from the start to favor the wealthy over the poor, regardless of their race?
A multiracial contingent of activists quickly showed the obstacles the campaign faces when they showed up at the U.S. Capitol on Monday to deliver letters calling for economic justice. The correspondence was addressed to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Not surprisingly, U.S. Capitol Police did not allow them to deliver the letters. And when the activists persisted, police ordered them to leave the premises or face arrest. They left peacefully.
The latter-day Poor People’s Campaign was the brainchild of two community activists — the Rev. Liz Theoharis of New York and the Rev. William J. Barber II of North Carolina. They described the effort as a “national call for moral revival” that would include “40 days of moral action.”
For the activists, trying to deliver letters to congressional leaders was about as mild a moral action as one could take. And even that was rebuffed.
In a recently released progress report on the issues that King had focused on — jobs and justice — the D.C.-based Institute for Policy Studies concluded “by many measures, these problems are worse today than they were five decades ago.”
The IPS report noted:
• Compared to 1968, 60 percent more Americans are living below the official poverty line today — a total of 41 million people. And while the percentage of families in poverty has merely inched up and down, the top 1 percent’s share of national income has nearly doubled.
• According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school, 23 states have adopted voter suppression laws since 2010.
• The criminalization of poverty and racially biased sentencing and policing practices have driven the number of prison inmates up eightfold since 1968, with the share who are people of color increasing from less than half to 66 percent.
Even where progress has been made, there are usually significant caveats. For instance, the latest jobs reports show unemployment for African Americans at 7.7 percent. Moreover, for single black men between the ages of 25 and 54, the unemployment rate is an astonishing 10 percent.
At the event in Annapolis, activist Steven Merrick of Baltimore asked, “How can there be so much poverty in a 21st century, first-world country?”
The same could be asked about racism.
“I listen daily to my patients talk about colleagues dismissing the effects of systemic racism on their health and the quality of their workplace environment,” said Renee Grant, an acupuncturist and activist in Columbia, Md. “Knowing that black employees get paid less for doing the same work as whites, seeing whites get promoted over blacks because the boss is just more ‘comfortable’ with whites, always the last hired and first fired — it’s exhausting, both physically and mentally.”
Another organizer, the Rev. Janelle Bruce, pastor of the Church Without Walls in Mount Rainier, Md., cited passages from the Bible, the book of Zechariah, in an appeal to the nation’s conscience. “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless or the foreigner or the poor,” she said. “Show mercy and compassion.”
The Rev. Pratima Dharm of the Unitarian Universalist Association cited a Hindu religious text, “The arrogant wealthy person thinks, ‘I have gained so much wealth today and I shall have even more tomorrow. I am like God Himself.’ ”
In the United States, arrogance and greed obviously trump mercy and compassion.
And it’ll take a lot more than 40 days of moral action to change that.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.