The Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival, is a movement picking up the mantle of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his work to address the issues of poverty in America. It is mobilizing thousands of people across the country to challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.
Every week since Mother’s Day, groups around the country in 40 different states have been rallying at their state capitals to call their elected leaders to account for the travesties of justice perpetrated against people, communities and the environment.
The first clue that our First Amendment right to “peaceably assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” would be violated was when we were told we could not rally at the entrance to the building itself. The PPC organizers were told that there would be construction with scaffolding and it wouldn’t be safe. But when we arrived on June 4, there was no such scaffolding. So that was a lie.
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Then, after an inspiring rally at the street level of the Capitol steps, the hundreds-strong group followed the Rev. William Barber in a march up the hill to the entrance and were met with two rows of state troopers barring their way. They were told that only two people would be allowed in at a time for “a tour,” and after those two came out, the next two could come in.
Barber explained to them that barring the people’s entrance would be a clear violation of their First Amendment rights. But the armed troopers, under orders from the executive branch – hence, the governor – did not yield.
Bear in mind that this is a public building. It is supported by taxes paid by every citizen of this state. As the crowd reminded the powers in their chants that day: “Whose house? Our house!”
In the spirit of the group’s commitment to nonviolent moral fusion, Barber asked those gathered to take a knee. The chanting stopped, and a reverent hush fell over the crowd. Barber then prayed with those gathered and blessed them. The crowd dispersed, but they will return. Two more actions are planned for the next two Mondays.
Taking a knee is a symbolic gesture reminiscent of the silent, solemn protest used by NFL football players to raise awareness about police brutality against people of color in this country. Brutality comes in many forms. The PPC protest that Monday was about environmental devastation and lack of access to affordable health care.
Speakers at the rally told about their experiences living with water tainted by coal slurry in Eastern Kentucky, toxins and cancers from industrial waste in Louisville’s “Rubbertown,” and black lung disease afflicting coal miners throughout the state. These workers are often denied compensation for the medical care needed for the disease. One speaker, a man from Harlan County, galvanized the crowd with his words: “As long as I have a voice, I will speak. I intend to be heard!”
The multiple environmental and health violations in Kentucky are emblematic of the perfect storm of economic, governmental, sociological and fossil fuel industry forces converging to destroy communities, public health and God’s creation over and over again. We believe it is important that the voices of those who are impacted by these forces be heard. Every faith tradition would look at what is being done to the people of affected communities and to God’s creation and declare that it is immoral, unjust, unethical and intolerable.
We will continue to demand justice. Like the persistent widow in Jesus’ parable, like David fighting Goliath, like Moses and Aaron confronting Pharaoh, like Gandhi confronting colonial imperialism, we know that justice and righteousness shall prevail. We invite others to stand in solidarity with those who suffer, calling our leaders to accountability. This is, indeed, our house. And we intend to be heard. Visit kftc.org/kentucky-poor-peoples-campaign to learn how to join the movement.
The Rev. Leah D. Schade teaches at Lexington Theological Seminary; firstname.lastname@example.org.