‘Not one step back’

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A rally for social justice by the Poor People’s Campaign drew thousands, including a group from Rochester, to the nation’s capital. (Photos by Jacob Schermerhorn)

Before loading two buses that would take occupants from Rochester to the nation’s capital, Michael Marshall, an organizer with the local chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, took a moment to address the group and their purpose for gathering in the middle of the night.

“I’m on the path to freedom and that’s why I’m on this bus,” Marshall said. “We’ve got to be respectful of people who have died from COVID, people who have died from homelessness. It will be joyful, but it is also a solemn event. We are standing on the footsteps and the legacy of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, like John Lewis.”

In nine hours or so, the buses would drop off the passengers at the nation’s capital for the Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral March on Washington, an all-day event intended to highlight a number of issues for underserved communities.

Marshall ended his departure speech teaching the participants a phrase often associated with the Poor People’s Campaign.

“It keeps us grounded and centered on our principles while we do our work,” he said, repeating the phrase so everyone could join in: “Forward together, not one step back.”

Rooted in history

In 1968, during the original Poor People’s Campaign, the U.S. “war on poverty” launched four years earlier by President Lyndon Johnson was losing prominence as the war in Vietnam escalated. A protest to reorient political efforts was planned by a number of prominent civil rights figures, including Martin Luther King Jr., who was focused on the campaign until his assassination in April of that year.

Demonstrators participating in the Poor People’s March (1968) at Lafayette Park and on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D.C. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The June rally included a 3,000-person camp named “Resurrection City” where protestors called for an “economic bill of rights.” That guiding platform included creating 1 million public service jobs, supporting public housing projects, repealing punitive welfare restrictions, guaranteeing the right to organize agricultural labor unions, and restoring educational budget cuts.

The June 5 assassination of Robert Kennedy, who supported the Poor People’s Campaign, along with flooding caused by heavy rain, leadership infighting, and a lack of substantial progress demoralized and angered participants. After over a month of the campaign, Resurrection City was bulldozed by the federal government. An economic bill of rights was not adopted, but some food and education benefits were slightly expanded after the campaign.

“I think Resurrection City is remembered as a failure, but even its failure lifted us to higher ground,” Rev. Walter Fauntroy, a Poor People’s Campaign organizer and later the first Black Washington, D.C., House representative, said in a 2008 interview. “At least, that’s how I view it.”

A “Resurrection City II” was organized four years later at the Democratic National Convention to raise awareness of the impoverished. Forty-five years after that, the campaign was revived in its current form as “the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival.”

While this modern iteration has already carried out protests against the “triple evils” of racism, poverty, and militarism, the rally that Marshall and the buses from Rochester arrived at was the largest held since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a public health crisis that has disproportionately affected low-income people.

According to a report from the Poor People’s Campaign, in collaboration with the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, those in poorer counties across the country had nearly twice the rate of COVID deaths compared with wealthier counties, even when considering the variable of vaccination status.

While Monroe County was well outside the report’s worst-performing counties in the U.S., it still has nearly three in 10 people living below 200 percent of the poverty line and over half spending 30 percent or more of their income on rent.

“The neglect of poor and low-wealth people in this country during a pandemic is immoral, shocking and unjust, especially in light of the trillions of dollars that profit-driven entities received. Everybody here knows these realities, this pain, this injustice and this death from personal experience,” said Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, at the June 18 rally. 

“We knew we must gather here,” Barber continued. “We knew that we must have this moral meeting over and over again. This sacred moral procession has been required in various parts of our history to exorcise the demons of hate and greed and racism in our society. There comes a time we must have a moral meeting and such is this moment now. We won’t be silent anymore.”

Voicing demands

Stepping off the bus on that scorching Saturday, a rally participant could listen to the speeches booming from the main stage set up just outside the U.S. Capitol, or speak with others gathered in a half-mile stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Those from Rochester and elsewhere around the country had concerns about the status of no- or low-wage people, but many others as well.

In fact, along with anti-poverty advocates among the thousands of people gathered were members of churches and other faith-based organizations, members of workers unions, reproductive rights and LGBTA+ supporters, advocates for people with disabilities, immigrant rights groups, leftist political organizations, indigenous Americans, housing advocates, farm workers, miners, environmentalists and anti-war activists.

Marybeth Knowles, a former master sergeant in the Army and current chapter treasurer with the Rochester chapter of Veterans for Peace, was struck that despite vast differences in where they live, attendees were connected by their passion for these issues.

“It’s just amazing,” Knowles said of her experience meeting a retired female colonel from Hawaii. “Sitting down next to her I just had to go, ‘Oh, my gosh!’ This is really nationwide.”

Growing concerns

At the same time, the great number of concerns and the sense of history binding these activists together could also be a potential source of dissatisfaction. After all, the 1968 Resurrection City of the Poor People’s Campaign was torn down by the federal government and the campaign fell short of attaining an economic bill of rights.

Since then, the number of Americans below the poverty line has remained over 22 million; income inequality is at an all time high; U.S. military spending far outpaces other countries (in 2020, it was $500 billion greater than China, the next highest country); and voting rights increasingly are suppressed through voter purges and ID laws.

Though President Joe Biden met with PPC leaders, Marshall noted that the president did not make an appearance at the rally.

“Any time you can actually bring (together) all levels of (the) economic, social, political, ideological spectrum, that’s the most powerful threat. Because we don’t vote around partisan, secular issues, we vote around principles, policies that represent our interests,” said Marshall, who also connected corporate interests to a lack of live mainstream media coverage.

Yet supporters have found reasons to persist despite reason for discouragement.

“What’s the alternative?” said Matthew Witten, an organizer with the Rochester chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. “I can’t sit down and watch it and ignore it. I certainly can’t support what’s happening. The direction I see our country (taking), I certainly can’t let that just happen.

“And because (the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign) did it before us, means we could do it too. It’s not discouraging, it’s inspiring actually,” Witten added.

A repeated theme for speakers on the main stage was the group’s potential political power.

“As long as there are 140 million poor and low-income people in this country, and we know it doesn’t have to be this way, we won’t be silent anymore,” Barber said, as he urged the crowd to exert their collective political will through voting.

Rev. Angela Waters Bamford, a Rochester resident and activist, responded with a poem. 

“Life is but a mystery,

A road short or long. 

Time is a clock,

With numbers to lead us on.

And yet the fight for freedom,

Is still far to come.

One day we will all be free,

One day we will count the people all as one.

One day we will say free and mean free for all,

Not just some.

One day that day will come.

But until that day arrives,

We must still fight broad and strong.

To make all men free,

Free with dignity.

I’m going to fight for you,

Won’t you please fight for me?”

As she finished the last stanza, a speaker on the main stage also finished their speech and the loudspeakers echoed with the words: “Forward together, not one step back.”

In their own words

“I’m here to stand for freedom and equality for all people.” -Ray Barber, a member of Spirtus Anti-Racism Coalition with the Spiritus Christi Church, holding a sign with Gladys Benjamin and David Presscott.

“I came to support poor people to show we care.” -Fania Ibraham, a single mother from Rochester.

“I have grandchildren and great grandchildren and I want them to know I believe in something and that I will stand up for it.” – Rev. Angela Waters Bamford, a resident and advocate in Rochester with Matthew Witten, an organizer with the Rochester chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign.

“All the injustices resonate with me. This is a way to keep fighting against them.”

-Raamitha Pillay, a member of United University Professions who has taught at SUNY Potsdam and Fairport schools. 

“There are too many people who are homeless and there needs to be justice around housing. We’re here to advocate for justice.” -Retired Epsicopal Priest Peter Peters with his wife Sarah Peters who both work with REACH Advocacy in Rochester.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

2 thoughts on “ ‘Not one step back’

  1. To Jacob Schermerhorn
    Your article is wonderfully well written and comprehensive and captured the heart and essence of the Poor Peoples Campaign
    Great writing

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