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Poor People’s Campaign puts focus on social issues

Boston demonstration part of nationwide advocacy push

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Poor People’s Campaign puts focus on social issues
Rev. Vernon K. Walker speaks at the Boston rally for the Poor People’s Campaign, which aims to build a national moral movement to address social issues. The May 14 event was a kickoff for six weeks of action leading up to a national gathering in Washington, D.C. on June 23. photo: sandra larson

The Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign kicked off a six-week period of activism and nonviolent civil disobedience Monday to demand a shift of political attention to address issues of poverty, voting rights, systemic racism, excessive military spending, homelessness and ecological devastation.

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At the May 14 rally on the front steps of the State House, area clergy members and residents who are living in poverty spoke about the need for a moral revival that moves government spending away from corporate subsidies, war spending and tax breaks for the wealthy and toward social needs such as affordable and decent housing, greater care for people with disabilities and jobs that pay a living wage.

“The poor are being forgotten. In this country today, we have 140 million people who are suffering every day from the crippling effects of poverty. It’s time to stand up on the behalf of our brothers and sisters.” said Rev. Vernon K. Walker of Boston, who served as emcee of the program. “Any time we have a proposed budget that would give more to military spending and cut poverty programs, there is a problem.”

He added, “It’s not a sin to live in poverty. It’s a sin to have a lack of concern for those who are in poverty.”

Savina Martin, co-chair of the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, told the crowd, “We say today, enough is enough! … Across this country, we have organized tens of thousands of people to come together to discuss the immoral and distorted narrative placed on poverty, ecological devastation and the war economy. We are talking about a long, protracted, and sustained movement building. And today we are going to start that action.”

The Poor People’s Campaign is a national campaign intended as a continuation of the work Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was doing up until his 1968 assassination. The revived movement is co-chaired by Rev. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach and organizer of “Moral Mondays” protests in North Carolina, and Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice in New York City.

Speaking to the Banner after the Boston rally, Walker said one of the purposes of gathering at the State House is to bring attention to the role and responsibility of policymakers, nationally and locally.

“I’m hopeful that the next 40 days will lead to a moral shift in the narrative, where we can focus on issues like living wages,” he said. “This is just an introduction. We are sending a message that we will hold Republicans and Democrats accountable for policies that don’t seek to help the poor, the disenfranchised and the marginalized.”

Monday’s rally began and ended with music and singing, as a band played songs of protest and hope such as “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “This Little Light of Mine.” A festive atmosphere gave way to a series of impassioned speeches to the large crowd gathered around the State House steps and across Beacon Street, followed by a planned act of civil disobedience: Sitting and standing protesters filled Park Street, blocking it to traffic for about an hour. No arrests were made, and after final words from Walker, the protesters marched down to Tremont Street and dispersed.

The event was a kickoff, launching six weeks of action in Massachusetts and nationally. The first week’s theme was children, women and people with disabilities living in poverty. Week two will address systemic racism and poverty, with emphasis on voting rights, immigration, xenophobia, Islamophobia and mistreatment of indigenous communities, and subsequent weeks will focus on the war economy, health and the environment. Local actions will continue through June 11, with event details still to be determined. A national rally will take place in Washington, D.C. on June 23.