Philly-region activists heading to D.C. for mass rally against poverty

Sign-carrying participants march on the southern leg of the Poor People's Campaign May 10, 1968, in Atlanta. (AP file photo)

Sign-carrying participants march on the southern leg of the Poor People's Campaign May 10, 1968, in Atlanta. (AP file photo)

Hundreds of activists from the Delaware Valley will be in Washington, D.C., Saturday morning for a mass rally against poverty.

The event on the National Mall kicks off the next phase of the new Poor People’s Campaign, launched in mid-May to continue – and build upon – the original campaign started by Martin Luther King Jr. months before he was assassinated in 1968.

Demonstrators will call on lawmakers to make poverty a top priority. They also hope to deliver a batch of letters with a list of demands to the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

“Just like Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses” on the wall of a church, said the Rev. William J. Barber, one of the founders of the new Poor People’s Campaign, referring to the start of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

The platform of the “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Campaign for Moral Revival” is rooted in four issues: systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and environmental devastation.

Each of the campaign’s two-dozen demands are linked in some way to one of those themes. They include:

  • a ban on natural gas fracking;
  • creation of a single-payer universal health care system;
  • free public college;
  • and an end to mass incarceration.

King’s goals included a guaranteed annual wage; getting the federal government to build thousands of affordable housing units; and pushing Congress to pass an Economic Bill of Rights, which, among other things, would create at least a million public service jobs.

The campaign continued after he was fatally shot in Memphis, but struggled to stay afloat, disbanding shortly after a Solidarity Day March in D.C.

Saturday’s rally follows six weeks of protests at state capitols around the country, including Harrisburg, Trenton and Dover. The weekly demonstrations were aimed at mobilizing a foundation – a coalition – of supporters to keep the campaign alive longer than King’s.

What happens next is a bit unclear. In Pennsylvania, organizer Nijmie Dzurinko said Friday that her chapter plans to debrief before making its next move, though more demonstrations and meetings with local lawmakers are distinct possibilities.

“We’ll see a lot of things that we have done and also things that are new for the campaign as a whole,” said Dzurinko.

The new Poor People’s Campaign is expected to be a multiyear effort, in part because of its ambitious agenda. It’s early, but organizers are confident their cause won’t lose steam because the movement is driven by people living in poverty – people with a vested interest in creating change.

“This is not a knee-jerk response,” said Barber. “The people who are building this movement, it’s not because they’re just doing it for a grant cycle. It’s not that they’re doing it because it’s just a fad. It is their life. They must change America.”

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