National "Poor People's Campaign” (PPC) Ramps up in Evanston
Evanston faith leaders, residents, and activists, along with thousands of people throughout the country, are jumping on board the reignited "Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival,” which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. conceived and announced just four months before his assassination 50 years ago today.
In 1968, King called for people across the country of all faiths and races to unite and challenge the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation's distorted morality.
His plan was to bring together poor people for a march on Washington to demand better jobs, better homes, better education—better lives than the ones they were living, to, King said, “Dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”
King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite for the Campaign to be successful. Though he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the campaign went forward, culminating in the "Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom" on June 19, 1968.
The Evanston rallies, and rallies around the country, are intended to register people for a 40-day kickoff--beginning on Mothers Day, May 13--of a multi-year campaign, details of which will be announced soon. Participants will join in acts of civil disobedience and direct action and converge on statehouses across the country in May, and participate in a mass protest at the U.S. Capitol on June 21.
The Reverend William Barber, II and The Rev. Liz Theoharis, are co-chairs of the National PPC.
Pastor Daniel Ruen, leader of the North Side PPC organizing cluster, planned and hosted the first Evanston rally on March 22 at Grace Lutheran Church.
The next rally will take place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at Reba Place Church, 620 Madison Street, on Friday April 13, organized by Celina Verala and Adam Vaughan.
There are at least five other PPC leadership clusters around the state, including Chicago, Peoria, Champaign, and downstate.
The March 22 rally at Grace Lutheran drew about 100 participants who sang and swayed, and heard inspirational words from a number of speakers including: Pastor Michael Nabors of Second Baptist Evanston; Cicely Wilson Fleming, 9th ward alderwoman and founder of OPAL; Dorothy Headd, long-time Evanston resident who founded Environmental Justice Evanston; Tracey McKeithan, executive director of Family Promise - Chicago North Shore; and Liliana Salcido, an organizer with Open Communities.
As speakers addressed the societal issues associated with poverty, audience members chimed in to protest, "That ain't right!"
I asked Pastor Ruen why he became involved in the campaign.
“I’ve seen the limits of targeting one piece of legislation, or influencing a small number of elected officials,” he told me.
“There were bills and agreements I worked on for years that were quickly swept away or not enforced once a new administration was elected. We need a massive, grass roots movement of Americans to demand a 'people and planet first' focus for our country. This campaign is a rare opportunity to build such a nationwide coalition and a new vision of America that includes everyone, including poor white people. The more we paint a picture of a society that is good for all people, using art, music, inspirational words, compassion and courage, the more we might move the needle a bit further toward a realization of The Dream."
Jaquie Algee, a prominent Chicago-area community organizer and one of the coordinators of the Illinois PPC, emceed the evening. She praised Pastor Ruen for the strong turnout.
“Pastor Dan, every time he brings people together, the numbers get bigger,” she said.
"We won't change any policy unless we all come together,” said Liliana Salcido, who works on fair housing and other social justice issues at Evanston-based Open Communities. "We need to organize intentionally across communities. We need to recognize that our differences are going to make us stronger,” she said.
Cicely Fleming said she hopes the campaign will address racism.
“If you've talked to me for more than a minute, you know I can talk all day about racism,” she said. “For me, the poor people's campaign is a great combination of things I care about. The injustices that come come with race, poverty, and class.”
Evanstonians talk about race in very polite conversations and about living here for the diversity, Fleming said, “Yet there are wards in Evanston that are 97 percent white, but whose schools are 25 percent Black because of kids being bused in."
Fleming said she hopes the campaign will help us look at race, and class, and different ways that we discriminate.
“To just be honest about where we are,” she said. "We have to be honest about where we are to get where we're trying to go. We don't have much more time to not talk about the things that make us uncomfortable.”
Tracey McKeithan, who runs the Evanston-based homeless shelter for family on the North Shore, talked about poverty.
“How is it that in one of the wealthiest communities in the country we have families with young children sleeping in their car?” she asked. "What can we do? Dr. King made the call decades ago. Come together to support and serve. These families want the help and support. They want to do better. But we have so many rules and policies in place that hold them down. That ain't right. We can come together to bring families out of poverty and back on their feet."
Dorothy Headd said, "I became involved in environmental issues in 2010 because of the waste transfer station [in the 5th ward] and the negative impact it was, and is having, on our community. It's located only four blocks from the high school, a few feet from a major park, and some homes are so close to it that they can see into the yard of the facility. Businesses such as these are routinely located in minority and low-income neighborhoods because no-one else will have them.”
Headd said her group has taken on the task of writing an environmental justice policy that will be beneficial for all regardless of race, where they live, or their station in life.
“We could use your help,” she said.
SBC’s Pastor Nabors spoke passionately about the state of the nation, reciting a long list of challenges.
“The wide and deep chasm between the wealthy and poor is growing much, much whiter and wider and much, much deeper. Arrogance and greed are by far trumping mercy and compassion," he said. "Criminalization of poverty and racially biased sentencing have increased the prison population eightfold since 1968, with Blacks making up a disproportionate amount of the inmates.”
Nabors also addressed voter suppression laws, the evisceration of public schools, and elected officials who, he said, have chosen the path of self-preservation rather than demonstrating compassionate leadership and dedication to justice.
“Twenty-three of our 50 states have adopted and legalized voter suppression laws since 2010. Sixty percent more Americans live in poverty than they did 50 years ago. The top one percent share of national income nearly doubled in the last 50 years,” he continued.
"At such a time as this we rise to say no more. We can no longer believe that simply finding a job for someone is sufficient or finding a place to live for someone is satisfactory. It's not enough any more. Not when the very same system of oppression will go on to oppress the next person and the next generation."
Nabors said change will start to happen--not in Springfield or Washington or at the UN headquarters.
“It will happen in a very small place like Evanston where a few people decided to gather together beyond our race, ethnicity , denomination, religion, beyond our attitude about this issue or that issue, and to say we must fight for our nation, for every single person who is a resident in this place.”
To engage in this campaign, he said, is not an ‘I did my part’ proposition. "This is a request for you to lend to us not only your ears, but your heart and your mind and your time and your service and your talent," he said.
Pastor Betty Landis, who worked with Pastor Ruen on the rally, said, "I stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us. This is an opportunity to remind people that amazing things can happen when we join together, especially with people who are affected by policies that are so long-standing that people find a way to ignore them. This is a way to put our bodies out there with all the forms of direct action that will begin in mid-May."
Rabbi Brant Rosen offered the closing prayer.
“This is a prayer for the ones who lose their homes to predators, who lose their pensions and healthcare, who stand on street corners, who live in tent encampments next to luxury condos that soar into the sky," he said.
"This is a prayer for the immigrants who fear every knock on the door, every cop who pulls them over, yet never give up on the dream of a better future for themselves and their families. Let us live to see new life spreading through abandoned streets and neighborhoods and cities and nations. Let it be so."
To learn more about the Poor People’s Campaign: https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/