WASHINGTON, D.C. — For almost 40 days, and some nights, a group of religiously affiliated people have prayed, marched, rallied, faced arrest or been arrested — all of it to call attention to what they believe is one of the fiercest battles waged by the powerful against the poor. And that battle, to many of them, seems to have gotten harder, not easier to fight since 1967 when civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. first organized a national movement made up of the poor and their advocates, who publicly shared their stories of injustice and camped them at the doorstep of lawmakers in Washington.
Back then, King began what he called the Poor People’s Campaign in Memphis, Tennessee, and he had planned to have it culminate on April 22, 1968, with a large-scale march on Washington, disrupting the nation’s capital until lawmakers moved to use the country’s resources, not to fund war, nor to enrich those who already were rich, but for adequate housing, health care, education, jobs and fair wages for all. This year, organizers of a modern-day Poor People’s Campaign plan to carry out what King was not able to finish in 1968.
His plan was disrupted when he was assassinated April 4, days before the planned event. Though the campaign and its activities were momentarily postponed, advocates still headed for Washington and met with lawmakers, handing them a list of demands. But the killing of Robert F. Kennedy weeks later, along with infighting among organizers, brought King’s original vision to a halt June 19, 1968. However, 50 years later, those who believe King’s battle remains relevant have brought the campaign back to life, organizing events around the country prior to a large-scale march on June 23 voicing King’s original concerns and adding new ones.
Even after King’s victories against desegregation in the South, poverty remained a great obstacle on the path toward the promised land he yearned for, and he saw economic justice as the next step.
“We aren’t merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now,” King said in Los Angeles in 1967. “We’re struggling to get some money to be able to buy a hamburger or a steak when we get to the counter.”
In Washington and around the country, Catholics have joined that massive chorus of thousands calling for the economic justice King wanted and have participated nationwide in the modern Poor People’s Campaign, which has the added title of “a national call for moral revival.”
Many of them began participating in the events as soon as they began on Mother’s Day this year, and have attended rallies and protests in 30 state capitals around the country as well as the District of Columbia. At those events, organizers and participants have addressed racism, xenophobia, health care, war, gun violence, the environment, militarization, immigration, education, jobs and housing.
“I think the disparities, the economic and racial disparities that I’ve witnessed … are very stark,” said Myles Duffy, vice president for the Washington-based Faith in Public Life during a June 13 interview with Catholic News Service, explaining why he got involved with the movement.
Because he is Catholic, Duffy said, he feels the need to speak out with others against what he sees as a clear war, not against poverty, but against the poor. Take, for instance, he said, lawmakers’ recent plan to cut $20 million from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides food for poor children, seniors and people with disabilities, among other vulnerable populations. The cuts could affect up to 2 million people. At the same time, lawmakers wasted no time last fall, he said, in approving a tax bill that benefited the wealthy as it cut the top corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent — a move that the Congressional Budget Office said will cost the U.S. $1.3 trillion over the next 10 years.
“As a Catholic, I believe it’s wrong to treat people this way because they’re poor,” and because those who can make laws “are powerful,” he said.
Duffy has attended a couple of events organized by the campaign, including one that led him to come into contact with a woman from Alabama who had struggled with homelessness and lost custody of her child.
“Hearing her story really touched my heart,” Duffy said.
And hearing it led him to an act of civil disobedience that resulted in his arrest.
“I learned that there’s a lot of pain and suffering that America isn’t used to listening to, but we need to hear these voices,” he said, and bear witness to those “tremendous injustices,” even if that means being arrested so that the powerful will pay attention.
The original campaign’s elements of highlighting personal stories told by the poor have led Catholics like Duffy, and Marianne Comfort of Takoma Park, Maryland, to welcome arrest, if that’s what it takes to show solidarity.
Comfort said that after she heard testimony from people who had no access to clean water in places such as Flint, Michigan, or to the poor who struggled to find clean water and other necessities following natural disasters, she made a choice about risking arrest during an act of civil disobedience at the U.S. Capitol as part of the Poor People’s campaign.
“We were expressing concern about people who don’t have access to health care, clean water and sanitation,” she recalled. “We stopped by a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and chanted and sang our concerns. It’s one thing to call and write a letter saying ‘I’m concerned,’ and it’s another to take bold action.”
Those who didn’t disperse when authorities asked them to leave that day were arrested, even if they were just praying.
Being in the capitol’s rotunda with the people who suffered injustices and standing physically next to them felt like the right thing for a person of faith to do, she said, adding that it was a direct connection to the Catholic teaching that says a Christian has an obligation to care for the poor and vulnerable.
Comfort, who works for the Sisters of Mercy based in Silver Spring, Maryland, said she has great hopes that the campaign will result, not just in more people hearing about the plight of the poor, but in leading them to take action toward the eradicating economic injustice.
Jason Miller, of the Washington-based Franciscan Action Network, said he, too, sees hope in the renewed effort to continue King’s work.
“I believe that it’s going to take both advocacy and direct action to bring about change, and the Poor People’s Campaign has given me hope,” he said in an email interview with CNS. “This is a broad coalition (both faith-based and some other folks) who have come together for this massive undertaking that is going on in state capitals across the country and they’re asking for a lot.”
Fighting for causes such as the environment, immigration, against military spending and for health care, is “a really tall order,” he said.
“But I have the belief that together we can work to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in our country and around the world, and these direct actions are bringing attention to these important issues which will bring about further progress,” he said.