People from across the nation rallied in the Poor People’s Campaign’s ‘Assembly and Moral March on Washington.’ Photo by Athiyah Azeem
Thousands of people gathered in downtown D.C. on June 18 to call on the U.S. government to do more to support the lives of millions of poor and low-income people living across the country.

The Poor People’s Campaign has a long list of demands to include: a federal $15 minimum wage, universal health care, expanded COVID-19 relief and guaranteed housing.

“This level of poverty and greed, in this — the richest nation in the history of the world — constitutes a moral crisis,” Bishop William. J. Barber II, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, told the crowd.

Religious leaders and people impacted by poverty and low wages took the stage to reflect on “interlocking” issues of systemic racism, restricted voting rights and environmental devastation.

The new Poor People’s Campaign bills itself as a revival of the late 1960s movement of the same name started by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice A. King, spoke of her parents’ vision before the crowd on June 18.

“54 years later, poverty still has a grip on the soul of our nation,” Dr. Bernice A. King said.

Barber criticized Congress for lack of action for low-income people — including the lapse of the child tax credit and the failure of a national $15 minimum wage.

“Regressive policies which produce 140 million poor and low wealth people are not benign,” Barber said. “They are forms of policy murder.”

Members of the Dia de Los Muertos DC, an advocacy group that holds events around the Dia de Los Muertos holiday, sit in front of the ‘Peace Tank.’ Photo by Athiyah Azeem

The campaign’s 140 million figure draws from the Census Bureau’s supplemental poverty measure from 2017. It includes people living at or below the poverty line and people earning under twice the income level of the poverty line.

Speakers shared their experiences with homelessness and working in dehumanizing conditions. Other people discussed how poor healthcare access disproportionately impacts low-income people.

Jamelle Hill, representing Georgia’s Poor People’s Campaign, said that the scope of experiences represented shows the diversity of low-income people and demonstrates the power of a broad coalition.

“We gain energy and synergy in coming together,” Hill said in an interview. “Poverty spans all different races, creeds, color.”

Mark Denning, a member of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, told the assembly about the suicide deaths of his three children. Denning said that his daughter was denied services while grieving the death of her brother.

A third of native people experience poverty, according to Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.

“My daughter and my sons’ death — it didn’t happen all by itself. It has a face. It has a name,” Denning said in an interview. “It’s poverty and it’s exclusion — that some people get and some people don’t in this country.”

Denning also said America’s embrace of individualism causes alienation and contributes to the nation’s mental health issues. That alienation enhances the importance of bringing people into the tent of movements like this one, he said.

If different forms of injustice can interlock, then “we must interlock as a ‘we,’” Denning said. “That’s what’s happening here.”

A protestor at the Poor People’s March holds up a large, tall flag that says “everybody’s got a right to live.” Photo by Athiyah Azeem

Pam Garrison from West Virginia’s Poor People’s Campaign said that having to work two jobs her whole life stole her motherhood and her children’s childhoods.

“I’m absent in my kids’ memories. They remember mom always working,” Garrison said. “They don’t remember me helping (with) homework. They don’t remember me putting them to bed. Because I was trying to keep a roof over their head and food on the table and their shoes on their feet.”

“And no matter how hard I worked — no matter how hard — it was never enough.”

The program also featured musical performances by a band of low-income people. During one performance, Kimberly Owens-Pearson, who traveled from Memphis, Tenn., raised her hands in the audience. She felt “blessed” to be at the event and said the experience was emotional.

“Punishing the poor has to stop,” she said in an interview.