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Weekend Read: Waging a New War on Poverty

The movement for racial justice in America is inextricably linked to the fight for economic justice.

Prominent African-American activists like Frederick Douglass W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph and Angela Davis recognized that black emancipation requires economic empowerment.

That sentiment is probably no better exemplified in American history than by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s shift in messaging near the end of his life.

King began to call for the redistribution of economic and political power in the United States, launching a national campaign that culminated in the Poor People's March on Washington in the summer of 1968. The march took place weeks after his assassination in Memphis, where he had traveled to rally support for the city’s striking sanitation workers

That visionary campaign has been given new life more than 50 years later by a network of grassroots organizations led by Dr. William Barber.

This revived Poor People's Campaign will convene its Moral Action Congress in our nation’s capital June 17-19 and will present a list of demands to Congress (Declaration of Fundamental Rights and Poor People’s Moral Agenda), along with funding proposals (Poor People’s Moral Budget).

The event is the culmination of two years of organizing throughout the nation. The group’s organizers have met with stakeholders in more than 40 states to illuminate the lack of attention given to the plight of the poor in the United States.

Poverty in the United States has increased by 60 percent since King launched the first Poor People’s Campaign. Economic security is a dream for millions of people. Today, more than 140 million people live in poverty or exist just a paycheck or emergency away from it.

This rise in poverty reflects increasing attacks on democratic processes. Rooted in racism and xenophobia, voter suppression tactics like early voting restrictions, modern-day poll taxes and felony disenfranchisement laws keep the poor from having a meaningful voice in the political process.

This has resulted in state and federal policies that are making it harder for people to escape poverty, such as states passing laws that preempt cities from implementing minimum wage increases and policies diverting money from public schools.

This lack of political power manifests in disproportionate rates of poverty among people of color – especially women, children and immigrants – and creates barriers to progress for everyone.

Across the nation, people are seeing their access to health care threatened by Medicaid work requirements.

Such inequality might have received more attention from Congress had King lived. But there are more than a few champions willing to tackle them today.  

For the Southern Poverty Law Center, that begins with ensuring political representation and with reforming systems that exploit the poor. We’re working to make the vote accessible. We’re also defending the rights of people caught up in a criminal justice system that increasingly seems to be more about fleecing the poor than delivering justice.

The reality is, our nation’s ever-widening wealth disparity affects each and every one of us.

Today’s Poor People’s Campaign is the broad coalition King envisioned decades ago – one that is well-positioned to demand reform in a way that unites people on common ground.

Your activism in this fight is critical as well. As Barber said: “We understand movements are built from Montgomery up, not from Washington, D.C., down.”

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.

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