Activists demand end to poverty, kick off national campaign in Raleigh

Rev. William Barber II addressed the crowd Monday evening. Photos by Kyle Ingram

The Poor People’s Campaign held a rally in Raleigh on Monday to demand an end to poverty, kicking off a year-long activism campaign that will culminate in a march on Washington in 2022. 

Attendees heard testimony from speakers across the country, both in-person and via Zoom, as well as several live music performances. Speakers discussed a wide range of progressive issues, including poverty, systemic racism and the environment. 

President Biden delivered pre-recorded remarks to the rally’s attendees, expressing his support for the organization and their agenda. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever been together at a time of such opportunity to deliver dignity for our nation’s poor and low wage workers,” Biden said. “To make ending poverty not just an aspiration — but a theory of change.”

The event in Raleigh was the beginning of what the group says will be 365 days of action, ending on June 18, 2022, with a massive “Moral March” on Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, organizers said they’ll hold events across the country to raise awareness about poverty, gain supporters and pressure legislators to pass progressive reforms. 

A key issue raised during the rally was voting rights, a problem the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign, said is especially relevant in North Carolina. 

Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign

“North Carolina was ground zero for voting rights,” she said. “Those attacks, those anti-democratic attacks are being spread throughout the country.” 

In 2016 and 2017 federal courts ruled that the North Carolina General Assembly had unconstitutionally gerrymandered its voting districts in an attempt to weaken the Black vote. 

Since then, 48 states have introduced bills seeking to limit voting, either through cutting early voting periods or restricting access to mail-in ballots. Fourteen states have passed these bills. 

The Poor People’s Campaign describes their movement as a “Third Reconstruction,” a multifaceted grassroots campaign drawing upon the civil rights activism following the Civil War and again during the Civil Rights era in the 1960s. 

“We are at a time when we did not have a scarcity of resources in America, nor do we have a scarcity of solutions,” the Rev. William Barber II, the group’s leader said. “What we have a scarcity of is social consciousness. As a people, we must change that narrative, because reconstruction is not just about law, but changing the mentality of the people.”

The organization’s demands include passing a living wage for all workers, ensuring the right to unions, expanding voting rights, eliminating tuition for higher education and more. 

The Poor People’s Campaign said that their “Third Reconstruction” will liberate the 140 million poor and low-income people that live in the United States. This 140 million figure, which estimates that almost half the population is in poverty, has been contested in the past, but The Poor People’s Campaign asserts that the official poverty measure is outdated and in need of reexamination. 

Barber is a civil rights activist who has risen to prominence since his “Moral Monday” protests in Raleigh began in 2013. Each Monday, Barber led a diverse coalition of religious progressives into the Legislature to protest a wide range of issues, such as worker rights, LGBTQ discrimination and restrictive immigration laws. These nonviolent protests typically ended in multiple arrests. 

Barber also served as president of the N.C. NAACP until 2017, when he stepped down to lead The Poor People’s Campaign. 

Despite Democrats winning the Presidency and a majority in the U.S. House and Senate, progressive reforms have largely failed to make it through Congress. 

In February, the Senate Parliamentarian refused to allow a $15 minimum wage increase to be included in the most recent COVID relief bill — striking down a campaign promise for President Biden and many progressive legislators. 

Earlier this month, Joe Manchin (D-Va.), announced that he would not vote in favor of the Democrat’s anti-voter suppression bill that sought to roll back recent moves by states such as Georgia to to limit early and mail-in voting. Manchin also said he would work to preserve the filibuster — a procedural bulwark that has been used to block progressive reforms in the Senate. 

“There can be no moderation when it comes to voting rights and living wages and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Barber said. “Senators have never voted against their own living wage, they’ve never taken away their own healthcare… That’s why we have to have a massive movement, because the politicians — even the Democrats — are not going to fully do everything that needs to be done if we just let them sit in the room and cut deals.” 

Monday’s event ended with a fiery speech from Barber, who told attendees “we have work to do.” 

“We’ve got to cause this nation to recognize that since the United States is the wealthiest nation in the world, indeed in all of history, it is a moral abomination that there are 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country,” he said. “It’s time to go to work.”

Demonstrators gather outside the North Carolina legislative building on Monday afternoon.

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