In mid-May, veteran West Philadelphia activist Nijmie Dzurinko joined a group of protesters blocking a hallway inside the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg. As police arrested her and 23 others, Dzurinko helped hold aloft a banner that said, "Deportation Is A War On The Poor." In doing so, she was making a powerful statement for immigrant rights — but she and her fellow arrestees were also achieving something else that was pretty remarkable.
They were picking up a torch nearly extinguished when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated 50 years ago this spring.
Dzurinko, former executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, said the protesters descending on Harrisburg to find common ground on issues affecting poor people from mass incarceration to toxic dumping are the vanguard of what she hopes will be "a new and unsettling force" in politics — echoing the exact words King used to launch a Poor People's Campaign in 1968.
This 2018 revival called "The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Renewal" has already sparked a series of protests in about 40 state capitals as well as Washington and is slated to peak with a large D.C. rally on June 23. It may be the most profound case of unfinished business in modern American political history.
It was spring 1968 when King's final dream descended — posthumously, as fate would have it — on the nation's capital with thousands of demonstrators led by a mule train from the poorest hamlet in the Mississippi Delta. The marchers had a lofty goal: To camp out in the bottomlands near the Tidal Basin and march daily on Capitol Hill until Congress agreed on a massive plan to wipe out poverty in America, with money and intensity that would surpass the actual war that America was fighting in Vietnam.
The first Poor People's Campaign did not end well. A big problem was the loss of Dr. King — assassinated on April 4. 1968, in Memphis, just weeks before the march was slated to begin. But there were other obstacles, including days of torrential rains that created a real D.C. swamp, long before a certain presidential candidate made that term a cliche. Organizers were stunned, as the Rev. Jesse Jackson acknowledged for CNN's recent 1968 documentary, when many members of Congress refused to even meet with them in the days before cops shut down the encampment.
A sea change was underway in American politics — one that has lasted until this day, with grim consequences. In 1964, a president — Lyndon Johnson — had made a "War on Poverty" the centerpiece of his State of the Union address — and voters rewarded him that November with the biggest landslide in U.S. history. In a time of post-war affluence and a rising middle class, pockets of poverty were viewed as a stain on the American Dream.
In early 1968, Robert F. Kennedy's presidential bid revealed the candidate's obsession with the poverty issue, even as his advisers fretted he was wasting time visiting a Native American reservation in remote South Dakota. "I think it's a terrible reflection on our society," RFK said after his now-celebrated 1967 tour of the Mississippi Delta."We are not doing what we should be doing in the country to deal with this problem." But even as Kennedy uttered those words, white backlash against "The War on Poverty" was already rising, fueled by resentment over violent uprisings in cities like Newark and Detroit where angry blacks said any gains weren't coming fast enough. The 1968 assassinations of King and Kennedy just over two months apart seemed to close the lid on their shared dream.
In the 1970s and 1980s, politicians mostly on the right side of the dial exploited that backlash to reshape the way poverty gets talked about in our national debate — inventing a world of "welfare queens" and "young bucks" who were somehow living the good life on the government dole, a farcical portrayal of what it's really like to be poor in America. This month, a new study by two leading academics linked white resentment to growing support for authoritarianism, finding, in essence, that "when intolerant white people fear democracy may benefit marginalized people, they abandon their commitment to democracy."
Rather than fight back, most Democrats cowered in fear, re-crafting their platform to fight only for "the middle class" and avoid mentions of poverty that might scare off white voters (even, ironically, as the end of the Industrial Revolution pushed many white working class folks into poverty.) In 2016, Hillary Clinton's issue-laden website didn't even have sections on urban affairs or affordable housing, arguably the biggest crisis for Americans below the poverty line.
The 2018 Poor People's Campaign is not just an effort to right a historical wrong, but in some sense an attempt to change the way we talk about poverty in America. The fact that "poor" has become a 4-letter word in our politics is addressed head-on in the Pennsylvania campaign's packet for journalists. "We don't mind the terms 'poor people' or 'people living in poverty,'" it states. "We know there's no shame in being poor; the shame is that there's poverty in a state and country with so many resources."
The campaign lays out a stark case that poverty in America has grown worse during the years since LBJ's "War on Poverty" was undone by D.C. policy makers. There are currently 40.6 million Americans living below the official poverty line ($11,880 a year for an individual, $24,300 for a family of four), far more than in 1968. By some measures, the number of low-income Americans struggling to pay bills is about 140 million, or more than 43 percent of Americans. The statistics are worse in Philadelphia, mired in the highest rate of deep poverty of the largest U.S. cities.
Being that poor, said Phyllis Bennis — a fellow with the liberal Institute for Policy Studies who worked with Poor People's Campaign leader, Rev. William Barber, on the movement's anti-militarism efforts — "means not knowing where your next meal is coming from or being just one paycheck from financial collapse. Your kid falls off the monkey bar at recess and that's it, you could lose your house or your car."
Bennis and other campaign activists say what's gotten worse on the poverty front since 1968 includes the decline of labor unions, tax reforms and other changes that have boosted runaway income inequality, and the ongoing militarization that has sent hundreds of billions to wage a nearly-17-years-and-counting war in Afghanistan while Congress slashed money for programs like food stamps — a disparity that gets worse under President Trump's latest budget proposal. Bennis said that $45 billion spent fighting in Afghanistan could instead mean health insurance for 19 million low-income kids — "what does that say about our priorities and what we think makes us safer?"
It's a sign of the times that much of the Poor People's Campaign actions are focused on state capitals like Harrisburg where demonstrators might have a better change of getting results than Washington, currently in the sway of GOP lawmakers who seem hellbent on cutting anti-poverty programs. The group has nonetheless published a lengthy list of demands, from improved voting rights to educational equity to higher minimum wages.
But organizers like Dzurinko say the immediate gains may come less from concrete votes and more from the softer goals of re-framing the poverty debate — taking the notion of "morality" back from conservatives pushing for school prayer or against abortion — and forging a coalition of grassroots groups working on local issues that so often overlap.
"It's coming into it with stronger relationships across organizations, and people committed to be a part of a long-haul focus on real grassroots organizing," she said. In the spirit of King's original effort, she describes what she'd like to see emerge from the revived Poor People's Campaign as "many Martins."
"It can't be about one charismatic leader," added Dzurinko, referring to how the 1968 campaign struggled after King's death. "It can't be about one person holding the vision. It's got to be many people in many places with many visions."