The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. organized a Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, demanding employment, housing and other opportunities for low-income Americans. Fifty years later, a new national campaign was launched this month, and leading the charge in Minnesota are like-minded clergy.
The new Poor People’s Campaign is holding rallies at the State Capitol to back issues such as affordable health care and living wages. Partnering with other organizations, the group also is taking direct action such as participating in the immigration protest last week that temporarily shut down a light rail line.
Organizers say they want to call attention to issues confronting low-income Americans — and to do it in a visible way.
“We’ve been praying, talking and writing letters [to legislators] for years, and we’ll continue doing that,” said the Rev. DeWayne Davis of All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis, a co-chair of the Minnesota campaign. “But if we just did what we’ve always done, would people come out and listen to the voices of people impacted by poverty?”
On May 14, the group kicked off a 40-day campaign in 30 states. Each week includes several events, from rallies to reflection times, focused on a theme. This week it was immigration, racism and other issues. Next week is gun violence and military spending. Then it’s health care and the environment.
Earlier this week, for example, about 130 people gathered on the steps of the Capitol at a rally condemning federal deportation policies. Lined up behind the speakers stood about two dozen clergy, many carrying posters bearing the group’s motto, “A National Call for Moral Revival.” They began the event by singing songs that echoed through the civil rights movement, such as “We Shall Not Be Moved.”
The Rev. Rebecca Voelkel, director of the Center for Sustainable Justice at Lyndale United Church of Christ, was the first speaker. She said federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials are overstepping their authority, including arresting people on private property without warrants.
“ICE has separated hundreds if not thousands of immigrant children from their parents at the border and across the country,” Voelkel told the group. “Families pay unjust fees just to communicate with their loved ones in ICE jails. Many deported immigrants are effectively receiving a death sentence.”
The peaceful rally was coupled with a nonviolent “direct action” the next day, when some campaign members joined immigrant-rights activists protesting federal deportation policies by blocking light rail access.
It’s not a formula for the timid — and not a strategy with which all clergy agree.
“Yes, there’s an edge to this campaign,” said Davis. “But it may also give someone pause to ask, ‘Why are they doing this?’ ”
Organizers say poverty is a critical issue overlooked by political leaders, one with deep ramifications. About 578,000 Minnesotans, including 175,000 children under age 18, had family incomes below the poverty threshold, which is about $24,300 for a family of four, according to recent data from the Minnesota demographer’s office.
That includes nearly one in three Minnesotans who are black or American Indian, and one in four Hispanics. Eight percent of non-Hispanic white Minnesotans are poor.
The Rev. Doug Mitchell, a retired Presbyterian minister long involved in Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness in Minneapolis, was among those on the Capitol steps. He said he grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil rights movement and that the movement has now expanded to encompass environmental justice and gun violence.
The campaign, Mitchell said, “is an opportunity for people of faith to say, ‘This is what we believe.’ ”