by Pat Hynes
This article originally appeared in the Greenfield Recorder.
As a young woman in 1968, I was deeply inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s passion to stir the conscience of America about widespread poverty among people of all colors. With the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and other activists, he planned the Poor People’s Campaign, the next chapter in the struggle for genuine equality, after desegregation and voting rights. King believed that African Americans and other poor people would never enter full citizenship until they had economic security.
He described the campaign as “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” Many leaders of American Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, and poor white communities pledged themselves to the Poor People’s Campaign.
Tragically for this campaign, King was assassinated before the Poor People’s March on Washington. The March went on in his spirit: on Mother’s Day, May 12 1968, thousands of women, led by Coretta Scott King, formed the first wave of demonstrators, symbolizing the majority of the poor.
More than five decades later, the Poor People’s Campaign has resurrected the original campaign. It was officially launched in 2018 with Co-Chairs Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis. Almost 40 states, including Massachusetts, now have active state campaigns.
I interviewed Greenfield resident Kate Pousont Scarborough, outreach coordinator for the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign in western Massachusetts, who has been central to building the campaign here.
Kate comes to the campaign having experienced poverty herself as a single mother. Like so many others, she struggled to find safe and affordable housing and to put food on the table for years. For Kate and many Poor People’s Campaign leaders, their lived experience provides the knowledge, solidarity, and determination to work toward a more equitable future for all members of our community. The wisdom of those who have experienced injustice of all kinds is prized in this campaign; it is their voices who are calling the campaign together for a June 18th March on Washington and beyond.
She explains that central to the work of mobilizing the Poor People’s Campaign is rejecting the narrative that poverty stems from lack of hard work, when it is all too clear that low paying jobs, lack of health care, and other policies that victimize poor and low-wage people are responsible.
“Even prior to the pandemic,” Kate says, “140 million people in the United States were poor or lower-income, and these numbers have grown as a result of COVID while the wealthiest people have continued to increase their fortunes. Essential workers have long been the lifeline for this nation and have not been fairly compensated for their work, in spite of the stress, personal sacrifice, and even loss of life they experienced during the pandemic.”
One of the goals of the national campaign is to address these injustices by bringing people who are most impacted by social, political, and economic injustices to work together to promote policy solutions on a national, state, and local level. Like Martin Luther King Jr.’s original campaign, the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign addresses interrelated injustices including poverty, systemic racism, militarism and the war economy. It now includes ecological devastation, with the health impacts of pollution and the denial of health care.
On June 18, 2022, people will come together in Washington from across the country for a Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls, organized by the Poor People’s Campaign. The March on Washington is a chance for people from all backgrounds and all corners of the United States to unite in demanding an end to the injustices that are harming us all. It will be led by poor and low-wage people and supported by partner organizations, activists, faith communities, and people committed to social justice. This gathering comes at a critical moment in our country’s history: a time when democracy is weakened, our climate is in crisis, and our policies continue to fuel more prosperity for the already wealthy on the backs of less affluent people.
Here in western Massachusetts, groups have been gathering in preparation for the June 18th March. Buses bound for DC will be stopping in Greenfield, Northampton, Springfield, and other areas across the state. Ms. Pousont Scarborough, with other impacted leaders, is at the core of building the campaign here.
To learn more, visit www.poorpeoplescampaign.org. To get involved in Western MA, email Kate Pousont Scarborough at email@example.com.
—Pat Hynes is a board member of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice. Her new book, Hope, But Demand Justice, is available at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield.