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After 50 Years, Protesters Revive King's Fight Against Poverty


A person holds up a sign during the "Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival" on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 14, 2018.

Thousands of poor, low-wage workers, activists and religious leaders across the United States have kicked off a revival of the Poor People's Campaign, a civil disobedience movement founded 50 years ago by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The 2018 campaign will involve 40 days of protests and action at more than 30 state capitals and Washington, D.C., aimed at relaunching a fight against poverty, war and income inequality that first took root half a century ago.

In 1968, King created a multicultural, multifaith coalition after witnessing hunger in the rural town of Marks, Mississippi, about 113 kilometers (70 miles) south of Memphis, Tennessee. He envisioned a march of the poor, descending on the nation's capital to demand better living conditions and higher wages.

On May 13, 1968, more than 100 people departed Marks in covered wagons pulled by mules. Black-and-white photos taken by James Goldman show covered wagons with slogans painted on their canvas tops: "Feed the Poor,'' "Injustice is a Sin in the Sight of God'' and "Which is Better? Send Man to Moon or Feed Him on Earth.''

People participate in the "Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival" on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 14, 2018.
People participate in the "Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival" on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 14, 2018.

The caravan spent a month traveling to Atlanta, then the entire group — people, wagons and mules — boarded trains that took them to a suburb of Washington, D.C.

Organizers of the new Poor People's Campaign say King's vision has yet to be realized.

They are calling for a list of demands, including changes to federal and state living wage laws that are "commensurate for the 21st century economy," a reinvestment in public housing, a repeal to the 2017 GOP-led tax plan, an end to America's militarism, reallocation of "resources from the military budget to education, health care, jobs and green infrastructure needs," and eradicating systemic racism.

According to the U.S. Census, there are nearly 41 million people living in poverty, although activists say the actual number is likely much higher. The federal poverty level in 2018 is considered $25,001 annually for a family of four.

Organizers with the campaign, led by the Revs. William Barber of North Carolina and Liz Theoharis of New York, say official measures of poverty are too narrow and do not take into account the number of people struggling in an era of stagnant low wages, and steep rises in rents and living expenses.

On Monday, participants in the nationwide protests took their message to social media.

"Everybody's got a right to live. That's why @unitedchurch advocates are on Capitol Hill today with the #PoorPeoplesCampaign. Someone is hurting our people and we will not be silent anymore!" tweeted the UCC Justice & Witness Ministries.

Later Monday, organizers of the campaign tweeted that hundreds of people had been "arrested across the country standing up for truth & justice."

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