There seems to be constant conversation in the media and among politicians and their audiences about how middle-class Americans are being impacted by the current economy.
But a group of liberal activists, politicians and others are reviving a campaign created by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., looking to draw more attention to how current economic policies affect the poorest Americans.
A month-long protest movement called the “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival,” which began Monday, is a new iteration of an initiative King started half a century ago. King's campaign sought to draw more attention to how the civil rights of low-income Americans were constantly in jeopardy. Since then, the group of activists behind the new campaign argue, the challenges that these Americans face have continued, if not worsened.
The event launched this week with hundreds of protests across the country, including a rally on the U.S. Capitol lawn. Here's what you should know about it:
What it is: Over the next six weeks, thousands of Americans are expected to participate in protests in 35 state capitals and Washington. The events are the continuation of protests organized in 1968 by King in response to the shortcomings of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty.
The leaders: The Rev. William Barber, a minister and board member of NAACP, and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, are the lead organizers of the new campaign.
What they want: Fifty years ago, the Poor People's Campaign asked the federal government to invest $30 billion into helping poor Americans by demonstrating a commitment to full employment, guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing. The most recent iteration of the protest seeks to address issues related to restoring voting rights, the implementation of federal and state living wage laws commensurate with the 21st-century economy, an end to mass incarceration and racial inequalities for black, brown and poor white people within the criminal justice system, 100 percent clean, renewable energy and other issues usually associated with the modern progressive movement.
In a protest Monday outside the U.S. Capitol, a group led by Barber and Theoharis blocked traffic, eventually leading to the arrests of 146 protesters by Capitol Police.
After giving protesters three warnings, officers led them away while protesters sang the civil rights song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” They were each fined $50 for obstructing the street.
More than 300 people were cited or arrested in similar protests at state capitols across the country, including in Missouri, North Carolina, Iowa and Indiana.
The issues that inspired the march have taken on an increased sense of urgency during the Trump era, wrote Washington Post opinion writer Katrina vanden Heuvel.
[Barber] says that Trump’s cruel policies have given the campaign momentum, but he has also made it clear that the movement is bigger than politics; it’s about addressing the “deeper moral malady” that has infected America. As Barber declared in an impassioned sermon at the campaign’s launch, “When you have policies that take away the human rights of the poor and make women and children prey, then you have a nation that can’t survive."
King’s movement continued after his 1968 assassination. Demonstrators marched, leaders lobbied Congress for policy changes and writers penned op-eds. Demoralization, conflicts over leadership and administrative challenges presented serious obstacles. The group’s demands were never fully met, but activists saw gains, including more government funding for school lunch programs at public schools with large populations of low-income students, more collaboration and the expansion of food stamps.
Gordon Mantler, a professor of social justice at George Washington University, wrote in The Washington Post this week that the success of the current campaign will be measured not in national measures passed in the immediate aftermath of the movement, but in state-level efforts and connections and inspiration forged through the organized events.