On Saturday, more than 2 million people gathered virtually to “call for a radical redistribution of political and economic power” as part of the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington Digital Justice Gathering.
Organizers with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival had planned for an in-person march in Washington, D.C., to echo Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s March on Washington that drew thousands to the nation's capital in the summer of 1968. Surging cases of COVID-19 made this years’ mass gathering impossible. With more than half of U.S. states reporting a spike in diagnosed cases, organizers of the march opted for a two and a half hour live-streamed event.
Saturday’s event went well over three hours, brimming with recorded testimony from organizers across the country.
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach, and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, director of the Kairos Center, revived King’s campaign in 2018. Drawing on King’s vision for a multiracial coalition for economic justice, Barber and Theoharis created a “moral fusion movement of the poor” under the same name. Today, more than 40 states have locally led chapters.
It was local organizers with the campaign who dominated Saturday’s event to put a “face on the reality of poverty,” as Barber said, to the United States’ estimated 140 million poor and low-income people.
“The stage is being given to people who are impacted,” Barber said in his opening remarks. “Because you change the narrative by changing the narrators.”
In early April, unemployment filings surpassed 6.5 million for two weeks in a row as a result of pandemic layoffs and furloughs. While weekly filings have dropped since states began to reopen, 1.5 million people applied for state unemployment benefits last week. Many more face repercussions of lost wages and missed rents.
Natalia Farjado of Vecinos Unidos in Milwaukee and an organizer with the Wisconsin chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, shared that four weeks ago, her life was going all right. Then the pandemic hit and she lost her part-time job at the local chocolate factory.
“I feel the fragility of just being okay,” she said.
It was a comment that was reiterated throughout the event as people discussed issues ranging from health care, to voter suppression, to police brutality, to the ongoing protests prompted by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
As speakers called for fair wages, an end to mass incarceration, clean drinking water, reallocation of military spending, and just immigration systems, they echoed King’s belief in a diverse, unified force.
“The front that we present has to be an intersectional front because it is a war that is affecting all of us,” said Taari Coleman, co-chair and founder of NC BORN and an organizer with the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign. “We have to recognize that we are so much stronger together than we are divided.”
Faith leaders came together from across the country to join in the call, offering prayers, prophetic sermons, and lament.
“We lament because we love. We prophecy and stand for prophetic witness because we love. We advocate for justice because we love ... because we love our fellow human children of God,” said Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. “Because we love, we march. Because we love, we call on our leaders to help us make America, America.”
In a CNN story published Sunday, Theoharis and Barber outlined their moral political agenda moving forward, detailing how billions of dollars could be pulled from border spending and military contracts to fund affordable health care, fair wage jobs, and public education.
“Now I know somebody's out there saying, 'Well, did you get that from the Democrats? Did you get that from the progressives?' No, I got it from the Bible,” Barber said in his concluding remarks Saturday. “Jesus said every nation is going to be judged by how it treats the poor … It’s time to believe and work as though we are sure that the hungry can be fed, the sick can be insured and cured, that immigrants can be welcomed, that the war machinery can be cut.”
With the presidential election less than five months away, Barber added that, “it’s time to come together and vote like never before.”