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Virtual Poor People's Campaign Puts Inequality At The Center

The Rev. William Barber II speaks during the virtual Poor People's Campaign on Saturday.
Screenshot by NPR
The Rev. William Barber II speaks during the virtual Poor People's Campaign on Saturday.

In the mid-1960s, after the passage of the Voting and Civil Rights Acts, Martin Luther King Jr. shifted his focus. King theorized that racial inequality could not be defeated without economic equality.

The result was the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, a multicultural, interfaith coalition with economic justice at its core. More than half a century later, a new generation of activists and faith leaders continued the charge.

On Saturday, the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, a virtual event, brought people together online.

"Fifty-seven years ago, my father, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reminded America of the fierce urgency of now. That now is not the time to engage of the luxury of cooling off, nor take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism," said Bernice King, daughter of the civil rights icon, in an introductory video.

More than three hours of personal accounts, calls to action, and sermons put economic inequality at the center of a range of issues troubling the U.S. and world. Health care, homelessness and income inequality were key subjects during the event. But so were issues brought to the fore by recent events including the police killing of George Floyd and the pandemic, which hasdisproportionatelyaffected the Black community.

"There's a system of interlocking injustices of economic inequalities and racism that runs so deep in America. COVID-19 has deepened these injustices," said Nia Winston, general vice president of Unite Here, a hospitality union.

Faith leaders, activists and everyday Americans were among those making the case for massive change.

Celebrities and notables including actors Danny Glover, Debra Messing and comedian Wanda Sykes all spoke to issues of inequality. Former Vice President Al Gore and Sunrise Movement activists asked for urgent action on climate change.

Other videos included testimonies of a diverse group of ordinary Americans, gathered from rallies, meetings and hearings.

In one video, Pamela Rush of Alabama recounted the conditions she and her two children endure in their mobile home.

"They charge me $114,000 on a mobile home that's falling apart," Rush said in footage taken from a hearing. "I got raw sewage. I don't have no money. I'm poor."

Curtis Bradford of San Francisco spoke of his experiences with addiction, poverty and homelessness.

"I had to win a city lottery to get housing. At age 55, I finally have health insurance for the very first time in my entire life," Bradford said.

The virtual event was streamed online with simulcasts through MSNBC and C-SPAN. A Facebook livestream for the event garnered over 1 million views, organizers said.

The event was also originally planned as a gathering in Washington, similar to one held two years ago. The pandemic forced organizers to move to the digital sphere. The coronavirus, which has forced massive layoffs, was itself a topic among speakers who cast the pandemic as accelerating longstanding issues of inequality.

Saturday's event was also planned well before nationwide protests ignited by the police killing of George Floyd. In his closing sermon, event co-chair the Rev. William Barber alluded to Floyd's death and similar police killings caught on video.

"On camera, we have witnessed terrible, murderous instances of police violence," Barber said. Many other injustices are not as easily captured on camera, he said.

"Millions of people have been crying, 'I can't breathe' far too long," Barber said.

An encore presentation was streamed Saturday evening, with one more planned for Sunday.

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