‘Not One Step Back’ – Rochester BeaconRochester Beacon

A social justice rally organized by the Poor People’s Campaign drew thousands, including a group from Rochester, to the nation’s capital. (Photos by Jacob Schermerhorn)

Before loading two buses that would take the occupiers from Rochester to the nation’s capital, Michael Marshall, an organizer with the local chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign, took a moment to address the group and their goal of rallying in the midst of the night.

“I’m on my way to freedom and that’s why I’m on this bus,” Marshall said. “We have to be respectful of people who died from COVID, people who died from homelessness. It will be joyful, but it is also a solemn event. We stand in the footsteps and the legacy of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, like John Lewis.

In approximately nine hours, buses would drop off passengers at the nation’s capital for the Poor Countryside Moral March in Washington, a day-long event intended to highlight a number of issues for underserved communities.

Marshall ended his farewell speech by teaching attendees a phrase often associated with campaigning for the poor.

“It keeps us grounded and focused on our principles while we do our job,” he said, repeating the line for everyone to participate: “Moving forward together, not one step back.”

Rooted in History

In 1968, during the first campaign of the poor, the American “war on poverty” launched four years earlier by President Lyndon Johnson was losing its importance as the war in Vietnam escalated. A protest aimed at redirecting political efforts was planned by a number of prominent civil rights figures, including Martin Luther King Jr., who focused on the campaign until his assassination in April of that year.

Protesters participating in the March of the Poor (1968) in Lafayette Park and on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, DC (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The June rally included a 3,000-person camp named “Resurrection City” where protesters called for an “Economic Bill of Rights”. This policy platform included the creation of one million public service jobs, the support of social housing projects, the repeal of punitive restrictions on social protection, the guarantee of the right to organize agricultural unions and the restoration of budget cuts in education.

The June 5 assassination of Robert Kennedy, who backed the poor campaign, along with flooding caused by heavy rains, infighting among leaders and a lack of substantial progress demoralized and angered participants. After more than a month of campaigning, Resurrection City was razed by the federal government. An economic bill of rights was not passed, but some food and educational benefits were slightly expanded after the campaign.

“I think Resurrection City is remembered as a failure, but even its failure propelled us to higher ground,” said Reverend Walter Fauntroy, Poor Man’s Campaign organizer and later the first black representative from Washington, DC, in the House. a 2008 interview. “At least, that’s how I see it.”

A “Resurrection City II” was organized four years later at the Democratic National Convention to raise awareness among the poorest. Forty-five years later, the campaign was relaunched in its present form as the “Campaign of the Poor: A National Call for Moral Renewal”.

While this modern iteration has already led protests against the “triple evils” of racism, poverty and militarism, the rally Marshall and the Rochester buses arrived at was the largest held since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a public health crisis that has disproportionately affected people at low income.

According to a report of the campaign of the poorin collaboration with the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, those in the country’s poorest counties had nearly twice the rate of COVID deaths compared to wealthier counties, even taking into account the status variable vaccine.

While Monroe County was well off worst performing counties in the report in the United States, nearly three in 10 people live below 200% of the poverty line and more than half spend 30% or more of their income on rent.

“The neglect of poor and low-income people in this country during a pandemic is immoral, shocking and unfair, especially in light of the trillions of dollars that for-profit entities have received. Everyone here knows these realities, this pain, this injustice and this death from personal experience,” the Reverend William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said at the June 18 rally.

“We knew we had to come together here,” Barber continued. “We knew we had to have this moral meeting again and again. This sacred moral procession has been required in various parts of our history to exorcise the demons of hate, greed and racism in our society. There comes a time when we need to have a moral reunion and such is that time now. We will no longer be silent.


Stepping off the bus on that scorching Saturday, a rally attendee could listen to the booming speeches from the main stage set up just outside the US Capitol, or speak with others gathered on a half-mile stretch of Pennsylvania Ave.

Those in Rochester and across the country were worried about the status of people with no or low wages, but so were many others.

In fact, among the thousands gathered, in addition to anti-poverty advocates, there were members of churches and other faith-based organizations, members of labor unions, reproductive rights advocates, and LGBTA+ people. , disability advocates, immigrant rights groups, left-wing political organizations. , Native Americans, housing advocates, farm workers, miners, environmentalists and anti-war activists.

Marybeth Knowles, former Army Master Sergeant and current Treasurer of the Rochester Chapter of Veterans for Peace, was struck by the fact that despite great differences in where they live, the participants were connected by their passion for these questions.

“It’s just amazing,” Knowles said of his experience with a retired Hawaiian colonel. “Sitting next to her, I just had to say, ‘Oh, my God!’ It’s really national.”

Growing Concerns

At the same time, the multiplicity of concerns and the sense of history that unites these activists could also be a potential source of dissatisfaction. After all, the 1968 campaign for the resurrection city of the poor was taken down by the federal government and the campaign failed to win an economic bill of rights.

Since then, the number of Americans below the poverty line has remained above 22 million; income inequalitys at an all time high; U.S. military spending far exceeds that of other countries (in 2020, that was $500 billion more than China, the second highest country); and voting rights are increasingly suppressed by electoral purges and identity laws.

Although President Joe Biden met with PPC leaders, Marshall noted the president did not make an appearance at the rally.

“Whenever you can actually (bring together) all levels of the economic, social, political and ideological spectrum, that’s the most powerful threat. Because we don’t vote on partisan and secular issues, we vote on principles, policies that represent our interests,” said Marshall, who also linked corporate interests to a lack of live media coverage.

Still, supporters found reason to persist despite reasons for discouragement.

“What is the alternative? said Matthew Witten, an organizer with the Rochester chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign. “I can’t sit and watch it and ignore it. I certainly can’t stand what’s going on. The direction I see our country (taking), I definitely can’t let that happen.

“And because (the 1968 poor campaign) did it before us, that means we could do it too. It’s not disheartening, it’s actually inspiring,” Witten added.

A repeated theme for speakers on the main stage was the group’s potential political power.

“As long as there are 140 million poor, low-income people in this country, and we know it doesn’t have to be that way, we will no longer be silent,” Barber said, as he urged the crowd to exercise their collective political will through the vote.

Rochester resident and activist Reverend Angela Waters Bamford responded with a poem.

“Life is just a mystery,

A short or long route.

Time is a clock,

With numbers to guide us.

And yet the fight for freedom,

Is still far from coming.

One day we’ll all be free

One day we will count all people as one.

One day we will say free and mean free for all,

Not just some.

One day that day will come.

But until that day comes,

We still have to fight wide and strong.

To set all men free,

Free with dignity.

I will fight for you,

Won’t you fight for me please?

As she finished the last stanza, a speaker on the main stage also finished her speech and the loudspeakers echoed with the words: “Move forward together, not a step back.”

In their own words

“I am here to defend freedom and equality for all.” -Ray Barber, member of the Spirtus Anti-Racism Coalition with the Spiritus Christi Church, holding a sign with Gladys Benjamin and David Presscott.

“I came to support the poor to show that we care.” -Fania Ibrahim, a single mother from Rochester.

“I have grandchildren and great-grandchildren and I want them to know that I believe in something and I will stand up for it.” – The Reverend Angela Waters Bamford, Rochester resident and lawyer with Matthew Witten, organizer of the Rochester chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign.

“I was so happy to hear that the campaign for the poor was still active. I knew “All injustices resonate within me. It is a way of continuing to fight against them.

-Raamitha Pillay, member of United University Professions who taught at SUNY Potsdam and Fairport schools.

“There are too many homeless people and there needs to be housing justice. We are here to advocate for justice. -Retired Episcopal Priest Peter Peters with his wife Sarah Peters who both work with REACH Advocacy in Rochester.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a contributing writer for Rochester Beacon. The Beacon welcomes feedback from readers who adhere to our comments policy including the use of their full real name.


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