While movements rise in response to acute needs, planning and strategy drive them forward. The Poor People’s Campaign stop in Memphis provided a glimpse into that reality this week.
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, who chairs the campaign with the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, made that clear from beginning to end at the mass rally on the plaza of the National Civil Rights Museum on Monday evening. He was there waiting as marchers completed their trek from Robert R. Church Park on Beale Street.
First, Barber orchestrated the look from the podium, inviting up participants from varied states and backgrounds.
“We don’t ever stand at the podium alone because this is not about one person,” he said.
He then started to paint a picture, with the initial strokes reflecting that “this movement” was called into being in 2019 after two national tours visiting over 40 states, where they were invited “by the people.”
“This was not a movement that some folks in D.C. decided they wanted to have and then start telling the people what they had to do. (It was) the people from the bottom up.”
And for the record, said Barber, “We don’t have any interest in doing no more commemorations. That’s part of the problem. We don’t need any more commemorations, we need re-engagement. We don’t need to keep talking about crucifixions, we need to start having some resurrection.”
Bringing the crowd forward, Barber noted that the Mass Poor People’s Assembly, or Poor People’s Low-Wage Workers Assembly on Washington, was initially set for June 2020. Then COVID hit and some urged a delay.
“But poor and low-wealth people from all over this country of every race, creed, color said, ‘No. Even if we’ve got to go online, somebody’s been hurting us, and we’ve been silent too long.’”
That led to an online assembly where 2.7 million people showed up, he said.
Reiterating his point that the focus was not commemoration, Barber brought forward Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a man with a commitment – even against opposition within his ranks – “to organize the wretched of the earth.”
Noting the work put in and the ground covered, Barber said, “We must give ourselves to this movement. And nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.”
There is work to be done, he said.
“I heard there were a lot of politicians that wanted to march for us today, but what I’m interested in is what you do when you vote. Because for 50 years, we’ve been talking about what he (King) did, but nobody picked it up. It’s been 54 years since the sanitation workers march, and right here in Memphis, they still don’t have union rights.”
Pushing past the sensitivity of some, Barber said, “…you don’t get a pass because you’re Black (in this movement). … you pass if you fight and stand up for poor and low-wealth people. Right in this city, you raised the wages of policemen and firemen, and didn’t raise the wages of poor folk, and sanitation workers. …”
Everything the modern-day movement is calling for “is possible, it’s not even radical,” said Barber, articulating a “living wage, guaranteed healthcare, guaranteed water, guaranteed housing, just basic fundamental human rights.”
The day’s assembly, he said, was not to lift him up, but rather to put a face on the real people in need – 140 million poor and low-wealth people.
Like the devotees to the first Poor People’s movement, Barber said, “We’re going to have a meeting, but it’s a twofold meeting.”
On June 18 in Washington, said Barber, “…we’re going to have this meeting, this time, to make sure the nation sees the faces and hears the voices, and they know exactly what we’re demanding.”
The path to non-violent civil disobedience, said Barber, requires that “you’ve got to make sure that your adversary knows exactly what you want, and you give them a chance to change, and you point them in the direction of change. If they don’t change, then you can engage in mass non-violent civil disobedience.”
Bottom line: “We’re going on June 18th, 2022, to make sure people know. In 2024, if they don’t move, we’re coming back, and then we’re going to engage all across the country in mass non-violent civil disobedience until there is a fundamental change in this country….
“This is just the beginning…”
TSDMemphis.com will feature stories and images from the May 23rd “Moral March on Memphis” throughout the Memorial Day Weekend.
(Karanja A. Ajanaku is associate editor/executive editor of The New Tri-State Defender.)