Poor People’s Campaign starts long-term trek to D.C.
The Poor People's Campaign is heading to Washington, where it will highlight the need for massive economic aid to the poor by passage of Build Back Better and protection of voting rights now under assault by the GOP. | Patrick Semansky/AP

RALEIGH, N.C.—Returning to North Carolina, where Moral Mondays, the precursor of the Poor People’s Campaign, began, the campaign and its backers celebrated a state Supreme Court win there while publicizing the drive’s long-term trek to D.C., which kicked off February 14.

The campaign will culminate with a massive Poor People’s March in Washington on June 18, and mobilization from then through the November elections and beyond, campaign co-chair the Rev. William Barber II told a February 15 rally/press conference on the steps of the state Capitol building in Raleigh.

“This is a call to action to the 33% of the nation” who are poor or low-wealth, Barber declared. That share zoomed to 45% of voters in key swing states in the 2020 election.

“This is a declaration of purpose. The system is killing all of us,” said North Carolina tri-chair Anna Blackburn. “We can’t be—and we won’t be—silent anymore.”

Like the prior night’s events in six states, the Raleigh rally was zoomed nationwide, with particular gatherings in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

A chart the campaign provided explains why those states lead the list: High numbers of poor and low-income people. In sheer numbers, whites are an absolute majority of them in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee, and a plurality (39%) in Florida. Blacks are a narrow majority of Mississippi’s poor and low-income people. There, the entire group of poor, of all races, is 48% of the state.

Future stops also via zoom, during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, will be in both Carolinas, West Virginia, and Virginia, all on April 2, Barber said. Other stops, mostly in the North and from the west, will feature bus caravans.

The campaign began several years ago with Moral Mondays marches through Raleigh, protesting the GOP-gerrymandered legislature’s passage of voter repression measures and other right-wing legislation. It’s since expanded to all but five U.S. states. So has its agenda, at www.poorpeoplescampaign.org.

The celebratory part of the Raleigh rally came in one of its key issues, voter repression, as the North Carolina Supreme Court threw out reapportioned maps for State Senate, State House, and congressional districts as violating the state’s constitution due to their massive discrimination against voters of color.

But Barber warned that campaigners, in Carolina and elsewhere, cannot rest on their laurels but must keep marching to keep the pressure on politicians. The marches, he said, should target both legislative action on anti-poverty goals and for forcing lawmakers to operate in the open, not in backrooms, when they try again to redistrict the state. The GOP’s maps particularly hurt eastern Carolinians, he noted.

“And the legislators that vote against women, against LGBTQ people” and against others, including workers, ”are the same ones who gerrymandered the state and then suppress the vote. They don’t like justice and they don’t like the (state) constitution.”

Controlling the vote via suppression

The same could be said, Barber explained, of anti-worker, anti-people lawmakers in other states and on Capitol Hill. Those solons “are controlling the vote” via voter suppression laws and “controlling this $23 trillion U.S. economy and controlling the wealth of this nation.”

The Poor People’s Campaign has wide labor support, which has shown itself over the years. And $15 and a union is one of its 14 campaign planks to help lift the poor. So is extending union rights to anyone who wants to join.

That especially applies to workers—such as Black domestic workers and Latino/Latina farm workers–banned from unionizing by current labor laws, due to congressional racism in the 1930s.

And last year, Barber and other campaigners, as well as union leaders, participated in the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s drive to organize the low-income workers at Amazon’s big Bessemer, Ala., warehouse.

That drive saw union leaders such as AFT President Randi Weingarten,  Postal Workers Secretary-Treasurer Elizabeth Powell, and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA President Sara Nelson link voting rights and worker rights.

“The battle to suppress the vote and the battle to suppress labor rights has been the tactic used by the Southern white aristocracy to hold onto their money. And it’s still true,” Barber said then. “The same money that’s behind voter suppression is behind blocking labor rights. And we need to understand that.”

The Poor People’s Campaign “is Moses across the Nile,” added Weingarten. “It is every single freedom movement we have because if we do not have the freedom to have a decent wage, a decent life, then what are we doing for our families?”

“This is directly connected to the voting rights issue in this country right now and all of the efforts to suppress the vote,” said Nelson.

“The struggle for economic and social justice, workers’ rights, human rights, voter rights, civil rights, and dignity and respect has never been easy,” Powell said. “It is about a continuing struggle for all of us. Sisters and brothers and working families, do not be deterred from casting your vote and let nobody turn you around. Strengthening the labor movement in the South is critical to any effort to transform this country and” to show “unions are essential for working people.”

While the campaign is out in the streets, it’s also fighting in the courts, joining the redistricting suits, and carrying its own case against the curtailment of free speech rights to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

There, in a case dating from 2018 and heard on February 14, Barber and other campaigners are protesting their arrest in Raleigh for a peaceful demonstration inside the Capitol. They objected to the lack of hearings on whether to extend Medicaid to some 500,000 Carolinian poor. Some of their comments angered unnamed foes inside the building, who complained to state troopers—who then arrested Barber on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, just for talking.

The “trespass case involves protected First Amendment speech in a public forum,” court papers filed with the justices say. Barber “was prosecuted under a statute that applies to trespass on private property.

The trial court and Court of Appeals failed to appreciate the constitutional dimensions of the prosecution.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.