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A massive and militant Poor People’s Moral March and rally brought thousands from across the country to Washington, DC on June 18. The crowd was “a diverse mix of Black and White, Latino and Asian, young families with babies, retirees, union members and college students,” a Washington Post report said. The Post report was itself news – authored by four reporters, together with striking color photos of activists with signs and placards.

Black Lives Matter activists were joined by young and old peace movement marchers, trade unionists and many others in a mix of anger and joy, demanding a ‘Third Reconstruction’ to reverse decades of attacks on the poor, immigrants, indigenous people, the environment and people in countries across the globe. The joy was an expression of the amazing victory that such a coalition had come together to change the country’s direction.

The first Reconstruction followed the US Civil War; it saw former slaves take power and control of their lives across the South. They won the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments outlawing slavery and guaranteeing basic civil rights, before being crushed by Klan violence and betrayal by President Andrew Johnson, who came to power after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The second Reconstruction was the Civil Rights movement led by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in which millions of African Americans and their allies rose up marching and braving racist violence to win the promise of the first Reconstruction.

“We are not an insurrection, but we’re a resurrection,” declared the Reverend Bishop William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign harks back, in revival mode, to the 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington, led by Ralph Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the wake of the King assassination on April 4 of that year. The reference to insurrection recalled the proto-fascist assault on the capitol on January 6, 2021, which has dominated headlines and TV news in recent weeks and months.

Photo: PoorPeoplesCampaign/Steve Pavey

Photo: PoorPeoplesCampaign/Steve Pavey

Speakers From Nearly Every State

The day-long rally heard a parade of speakers from nearly every state, telling personal stories of their experiences with poverty, oppression and injustice. The dozens of speakers addressed homelessness, environmental injustice, challenges faced by Indigenous people, gun violence, women’s right to choose abortion, and the shameful treatment of veterans, among others. Prominent “interpreters” also spoke. Dr. Bernice King, daughter of the civil rights leader, emphasized that today’s poor people’s campaign is part of her father’s legacy. She declared “we can create the Beloved Community, a society of justice and love. Dr. Cornell West, of Columbia’s Union Theological Seminary (formerly of Harvard and Princeton), highlighted the common message of oppression, resurrection and revolution in all the speakers’ talks. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, declared that all the problems of the day could be solved by ending the endless US wars everywhere, and cutting the Pentagon budget. (Maybe allot $53 billion to people’s needs instead of war elsewhere.)

A special June 18 Democracy Now report highlighted that the Moral March comes “as the United States experiences its worst inflation in decades with skyrocketing food, gas and energy prices,” suggesting the movement will grow as the economic crisis worsens. Democracy Now host Amy Goodman interviewed PPC co-chairs, Rev. Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, about the background and goals of the campaign. “We are… a resurrection of thousands, of every race and creed and color and kind and geography,” Barber said, “who are coming nonviolently to Washington, DC, from all across this great land, to say that the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country, 43% of this nation, 52% of the children, 60% of Black people, 30% of white people, 68% of Latinos… 87 million people who are uninsured or underinsured, 32 million people that get up every morning and work jobs that do not pay a living wage, less than $15 an hour ‒ we won’t be silent or unseen anymore.”

Barber said “poor people are coming to say not only do we need a moral reset ‒ and low-wage workers are saying it ‒ we represent 32% of the electorate now, poor people do, and 45% of the electorate in battleground states. And it’s time for that power to be organized, mobilized and felt in every election throughout this country.”

“What you saw January 6 was the insurrection. What you see on Saturday is a resurrection of people coming together,” Barber said.

Reverend Liz Theoharis mentioned a study by the PPC and Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs that showed between two and five times the number of poor people from poor communities died from the pandemic than richer communities and richer people. “How is it,” she asked, that “this rich nation… still has the kind of poor health outcomes, still has 87 million people who before the pandemic were uninsured or underinsured, and even tens of thousands who have lost their healthcare coverage in the worst public health crisis in generations?”

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At the start of the march, a group of doctors and medical professionals from North Carolina, White Coats for Social and Health Justice, staged a “die-in” highlighting that “poverty is a public health problem,” as Dr. Howard Eisenson of Durham, NC, said. “The problem with physicians,” he said, “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.”

Weapons: Roots of Inequality

The antiwar group CodePink carried hand-made signs and placards saying “Cut the Pentagon,” and “Demilitarize Everything.” CodePink’s San Francisco chapter coordinator Cynthia Papermaster, said “Weapons are really one of the roots of all this inequality. (Washington Post photo.)

The PPC’s Reconstruction Agenda demands the government “prioritize peace by reducing military spending, redirecting those resources” to people’s priorities. Over the past 20 years the US government has spent more than $21 trillion on war, militarizing the border, surveillance and a war economy that kills, incarcerates and criminalizes the poor at home and around the world, the Agenda says.

Walter Hales of the Black Political Empowerment Project in Pittsburgh said 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,” he said. “But it affects education and hurts those who can’t participate in a democracy.”

Months and Years of Organizing

The June 18 Moral March was the culmination of months of protest marches in 45 states. There were major rallies earlier this year in Los Angeles, Memphis, Louisiana, Philadelphia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Ohio, and on Wall Street in New York City. Major unions in all industries across the country have endorsed the Poor People’s Campaign, as have the organizing drives of low-wage workers in fast food and retail.

At a June 6 press conference Rev. Barber said “Our nation is experiencing a historic wave of labor uprisings led by the workers who are demanding that the value of their work be represented in their pay, their working conditions, and in our nation’s laws.”

The unions share the campaign’s agenda demanding a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour, a universal single-payer national health care system for everyone, and an end to homelessness, evictions and foreclosures. The agenda also calls for expanded food security programs, universal access to clean water, utilities and high-speed broadband; cancellation of student debt, an end to school segregation, and increased funding for early childhood programs. For immigrants the agenda demands that immigrants’ rights be respected and protected, that the southern border must be demilitarized, with a timely citizenship process for all who seek citizen status, and an end to deportations. The agenda also calls for “fair taxation on the ultra-rich, corporations and Wall Street,” noting that fair taxation combined with cutting the military budget would make the entire people’s agenda very affordable.

Rev. Liz Theoharris quoted Dr. King, that “war, in all its forms, is a war on the poor, and it’s cruel manipulation of the poor.” She added, “we don’t have a draft in this country, but we have a poverty draft. And 22 veterans commit suicide every day in this country because of the moral costs of war. And if we look at our military budget, 53 cents of every discretionary dollar goes to the military. We can’t even spend 15 cents on healthcare and living-wage jobs and investments in our children and in anti-poverty programs combined. This disproportionately impacts poor people. That’s poor people in the United States, and poor people across the world. As Dr. King said, you have poor people come together from this rich nation to go and kill poor people across the world. And we’re seeing this across the world in this moment as well.”

At the June 18 rally, Barber announced plans to return to DC in September after continued organizing during the summer months. Will the plans include more than elections?

Our job is to run all the way to the finish line,” Rev. Barber said. Where is that “finish line”? Maybe if all the forces aligned in the Third Reconstruction Agenda join together at the same time across the country, the resurrection the campaign calls for can really happen. But it might take more than a rally in DC. We may want to learn from other high points in the people’s movement – like Occupy Wall Street, and the Longshore Union’s shutdown of the West Coast. Or the “red for ed” teacher wildcats of a few years back. Or the student strikes across the country back in 1970. Or the plant occupations and strikes in the 1930s that gave birth to the CIO. All of that together could get us to the finish line and then some.