Wake County

‘Poor People’s Campaign’ kicks off politely but promises to get louder in the spring

Supporters of a new movement to try to pressure state and federal lawmakers to take action to help the poor walked quietly into the halls of the N.C. General Assembly on Monday with a promise that they’ll be back starting in May and that they’ll make more noise then.

The group gathered first on Halifax Mall for a brief rally that was the North Carolina kickoff of the “Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.” Similar events were set for at least 30 other states and Washington, D.C.

Leaders of the national movement are the Rev. William Barber, who helped organize the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, and the Rev. Liz Theoharis, who say they will work with grassroots groups across the country on four core issues: racism, poverty, ecological devastation and what the group calls a “war economy,” referring to the disproportionate amount of resources used for the military. Neither was present for the North Carolina kickoff.

The theme of the movement is that protecting the poor is a moral imperative that should be codified in state and federal law. The effort is a revival of the Poor People’s Campaign announced by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, and builds off the Moral Monday movement that started after the 2012 elections.

The group prepared a letter, read aloud in sections by different leaders, that laid out some of its concerns: an increase in the percentage of people living in poverty while the incomes of the nation’s top earners continues to climb; the passage of voter suppression laws by 23 states since 2010; increases in prison spending and immigration enforcement and deportation; and increased military spending.

“We demand a change in course,” the letter said. “Our faith traditions and state and federal constitution all testify to the immorality of an economy that leaves out the poor, yet our political discourse consistently ignores the 140 million poor and low-income people in America.

“We are here today to demand that, in committees and on the floors of this state’s legislative bodies, you uphold the oath that you have taken to represent us on a moral agenda that lifts up the common good and the general welfare. And we are prepared to take direct action and engage in nonviolent civil disobedience to insist that Republicans, Democrats and independents develop serious proposals to address such an agenda.”

The Rev. Nelson Johnson of Greensboro speaks during a “Poor People’s Campaign” rally on Halifax Mall in Raleigh on Monday. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Hundreds of people were arrested during the Moral Monday events, a series of protests led by religious liberals in response to decisions by the Republican-led legislature and then-Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.

The Moral Monday protests were criticized by conservatives who said they were more about personalities than policies, or that they ignored economic realities.

For six weeks starting on Mother’s Day, activists in the Poor People’s Campaign are expected to use similar tactics – peacefully protesting inside the halls of the legislature, where they will be subject to arrest – to draw attention to their causes.

Nancy Huslage, a retired hospice chaplain from Raleigh, said she participated in Monday’s event because it is a bottom-up movement led by people who know the hardships of poverty.

Killi Wilhelm of Willow Springs attended, she said, because of her interest in providing shelter for the homeless.

Debbie Smith of Burlington came and spoke about having to choose which bills to pay each month now that she can’t work because of illnesses she contracted from chemical exposures on the job.

Bobby Jones of Goldsboro told the crowd about living with coal ash, a by-product of Duke Energy’s power production that has caused environmental issues in Wayne County and elsewhere in the state.

The group then walked in a line into the legislative building and delivered copies of the letter to the offices of House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger. They didn’t get to meet with either one.

“They’ll know we were here,” Wilhelm said. “And that we will be back.”

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin