Hundreds of protestors closed down the streets around the New York State Capitol in Albany on Monday to mark the start of six weeks of protests, teach-ins and other activities designed to continue the anti-poverty work Martin Luther King Jr. began in 1967. Actions took place at 29 other capitol buildings across the country.
The Poor People’s Campaign was brought to an abrupt end when King was assassinated in 1968. Organizers with backgrounds in labor, advocacy, religion, and education say they are reviving the campaign because King’s mission was left unfulfilled. And they say, things may be worse for the common worker now than they were in 1968.
“We see more evidence that people are in worse shape today than they were in 1968,” said Barbara Smith, a former Albany councilwoman, feminist advocate, and member of the NYS Coordinating Committee for the Poor People’s Campaign. “Most poor people work a job and it’s just not enough to get by. They work one job if not two or three and it’s not enough to meet basic human needs in this very wealthy country. The minimum wage was higher in 1968 than it is now if you look at buying power, and adjust for inflation.”
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics, the buying power of the minimum wage peaked in 1968 when it was raised from $1.40 to $1.60 an hour. Adjusted for inflation that would be about $10.90. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and hasn’t been raised for seven years.
While New York passed a $15 minimum wage increase in 2016, it is currently being phased in in certain parts of the state. In 2018, large NYC companies with more than 11 employees are required to pay a minimum wage of $13. Companies with a smaller staff in NYC are now paying $12. Businesses in Suffolk, Westchester and Nassau counties must pay $11. For workers in the Capital Region and the rest of the state, the minimum is $10.40. Upstate New York won’t be eligible for the $15 minimum until 2021, when the state budget director will begin to be able to set the minimum wage based on the consumer price index and other factors.
Business owners have warned that an increasing minimum wage will damage their companies.
One of the major focuses of the campaign is to eradicate the stigma of poverty and what Smith says is the misconception that “the poor” are those who refuse to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. A part of that effort is a report written by the Institute For Policy Studies called “Souls of Poor Folk” The report details how welfare programs have steadily been undermined being made increasingly ineffective as poverty has drastically increased. The report finds that a litany of connected issues feed into the continued poverty of millions of Americans. The report argues that all of those issues must be addressed as one.
Another misconception the campaign seeks to challenge is that there must be poor people in a country as wealthy as the United States.
Smith says that the return to King’s work comes at a time when it feels like the country is regressing. “Racism is alive and well. We have a white supremacist in White House and all these people who love and adore him. We have white supremacy represented in policy through voter suppression and the undermining of the voting rights act. We have issues like police brutality that the Justice Department isn’t investigating anymore. We’ve taken leaps backward,” said Smith.
The revived campaign will focus on the original core issues of poverty and racism with environmentalism introduced as a new priority.
The campaign’s organizers have decided rather than focusing on national issues and Washington that they will direct their attention toward state houses across the country where they say more can be done to directly impact the lives of workers. At the end of the 40 days of protest, there will be one unified march on Washington.
Each week will have a theme to draw attention to certain issues. This week the focus is “‘Somebody’s Hurting Our People: Child poverty, Women, and People with Disabilities.”
The group has a lengthy list of demands that includes changes to living wage laws, an end to systematic racism, investment in public housing, a repeal of the 2017 GOP tax plan, and a shift from funding the military to funding health care, education and green energy projects.
Rev. William Barber, national co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign, was recently profiled in The New Yorker. “I worry,” Barber told The New Yorker, “about the way that faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism, and greed.”
Smith said that “One major goal is to shift the narrative as far as how people define themselves as morally in opposition to other people’s lives, whether its immigration status, sexual expression, or religious beliefs.”
Michael Jeffries, an associate professor of American Studies at Wellesley College, told NPR that while the movement’s timing is good, it may be biting off more than it can chew. “ [Barber] has a list of demands for this reinvigorated Poor People’s Campaign, but it is a lengthy list,” Jeffries told NPR.
“The piece of this that remains to be seen is, can you sustain a social movement with as many issues as Barber is targeting?”