In June, I took part in a huge protest march. In doing so, however, I broke no lockdown rules. It was due to have taken place along the Mall in Washington DC. but instead, like so much else this year, it took place online. Its backdrop was the continually unfolding horrors of COVID19 and ongoing protests across the world in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
The Poor Peoples’ Campaign has been several years in the planning. Indeed, some would say that it has been under construction since 1967. In November of that year, Martin Luther King Jr. announced plans for a gathering of people from all races to gather in the nation’s capital. “This is a highly significant event,” King told delegates at an early planning meeting, describing the campaign as “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colours and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.”
Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 meant that he never lived to take part in the campaign although it still went ahead. At its height over 2,000 people from across the United States took up camp in makeshift shelters on the Mall. Robert Kennedy’s funeral cortege, at the request of his family, went past the so-called ‘Resurrection City’. Although a few of the demands of the campaign were met, many were not and the camp dispersed on the 24th June, after six weeks.
Over the last fifteen years I have had the privilege of getting to know a few of the people who have worked tirelessly to continue the great unfinished business of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign. These include the two vice-chairs, Rev Dr Liz Theoharis and, to a far lesser extent, Rev Dr William Barber II. Both are remarkable people who have committed their lives to being alongside people in the struggle for justice and dignity.
In one sense, this year’s gathering was a star-studded event. The welcome was from Dr Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King and other speakers included a former US vice-president (Al Gore) and a Nobel prize-winning economist (Joseph Stiglitz). But as is so often the case, the most powerful words and insights came from those whose lives are blighted by racism, sexism and poverty.
Children talking of the shame of food stamps, women and men about zero-hour employment in the fast food industry and vast online warehouse stores, about lack of healthcare, appalling housing, gun violence and addiction.
William Barber described these testimonies as amongst the prophetic voices of our time. They disturbed, challenged, and provoked. “You change the narrative by changing the narrator,” he pointed out.
This has been my lifetime’s experience. It is one thing to know the numbers, the statistics and to hear the story second hand. It is another thing, entirely, to hear directly from people who continue to lament, to know the people and to have the privilege of calling them friends.
One of the most powerful gatherings I’ve heard about recently was when a number of people from Scotland’s Poverty Truth Community got together. Four members of the community, all black, spoke about their experiences of racism in Scotland. Sadly, on this occasion, I wasn’t there but I know from those who were that it was tough, difficult, raw, emotional and awe-inspiring.
Too often these voices, and the wisdom that arises out of that struggle are silenced or ignored. If things are to really change then that needs to change. We need to support, enable and (at times) get out of the way of a movement where those who are the victims of injustice are the leaders.
A version of this article was first published in Life & Work, the magazine of the Church of Scotland, in August 2020.