Saturday, June 06, 2009

Poor People's Campaign 2009 on 6/19

Photo by Walter C. Black, Sr.

As you may recall, I was fortunate enough to attend one of Antoinette Harrell's poverty tours in February. The one I went on involved the Mississippi Delta region near Marks, where Martin Luther King, Jr., kicked off his Mule Train for the first Poor People's Campaign in 1968. It was a life-changing experience. Even my post about it generated attention from a wide range of readers, including, for example, a producer from Al Jazeera in Washington, D.C.

Harrell co-founded, with Boston city planner Ines Soto-Palmarin, an organization they call "Gathering of Hearts" and on Friday, June 19th, Gathering of Hearts will host an all-day event in Lambert, Mississippi, intended to raise national awareness of the condition of the people who still live there in much the same type of financial crisis that drew Martin Luther King's attention in the first place.

King's original focus, of course, was racial inequality and in the mid-1960's, he was riding a huge wave of public support on that issue. Then, on April 4, 1967, King delivered a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam” at New York City’s Riverside Church. It outlined, as only King could, exactly how he had come to feel about the war in Vietnam and about the government’s practice of allocating funds to the military “with alacrity and generosity” while turning to the poor with “hostility,” divvying out poverty funds with “miserliness.” Those that agreed with his stance were thrilled, but there were many who turned a jaundiced eye on his foray into a much less clear-cut political arena not seen as directly related to de-segregation issues.

Determined to address this major root cause of inequality and pain in the nation, King moved shortly into talking – loudly and eloquently – about the many abjectly poverty-stricken in the U.S., whether African-American or not. Soon, he was including Latinos, Native Americans, and even poor Whites from the Appalachian mountains in his discussions about what was wrong in America and what needed to be done about it. He had never left them out entirely, but now he spoke not as a Black leader of Black people, but as an American leader of poor people. And there are those who believe that this is what cost him his life.

Soon, King and the other founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council were deep in discussions planning a Poor People's Campaign that would give a voice to a “multicultural army of the poor.” Senator and Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy instructed Marion Wright (now Edelman) to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington, to make them visible. And King answered the call.

By the time he and the other SCLC leaders reached Memphis in April of 1968 to support a strike by the sanitation workers for better conditions and the right to unionize, the decision had already been made to take a mule train from Marks, Mississippi, to Washington, D.C., to demand a Poor People’s Bill of Rights. King called the Campaign the “second phase” of the civil rights movement and massive government jobs programs, affordable housing, and a guaranteed annual income for the poor were only the beginning of what was going to be presented as non-negotiable expectations. The Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.” But the day after King arrived in Memphis, he was shot and killed, insuring that he would never see the Poor People's Campaign become a reality.

Photo by Laura Jones

Undaunted, the multicultural army King had enlisted gathered and made the trek to Washington in May, where 50,000 marchers established a shanty town they named Resurrection City. With 2000 to 5000 residents, Resurrection City had a sewer system, health care, schools and even a mayor, the Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy. Each day began with a demonstration at the Department of Agriculture and then various groups would descend on the office of their primary interest. At night, musicians would entertain. Jimmy Collier sang. Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. Even Pete Seeger made an appearance.

But an almost incredible amount of rain soon turned the City into a mud hole of soggy despair that no musician could brighten. And by the time government bulldozers rolled into the camp on June 24th, many, if not all, of the residents were doubtless relieved, though broken-hearted that the Poor People's Campaign, valiant effort that it was, had joined the one who conceived it as only a historical note.

Nevertheless, one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s many memorable quotes is: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends toward justice.” And so it is, that, 41 years after the first Poor People's Campaign, Gathering of Hearts has stepped up to the plate to re-awaken history by calling for a new commitment by a new Presidential administration to the old problem of poverty – even deep, deep poverty – in the United States.

The new Poor People's Campaign will begin with a poverty tour from 9:00 a.m. until noon on Friday, June 19th. Anyone who wants to participate should meet before 9:00 a.m. at the Quitman County Elementary School on Highway 3 South in Lambert, Mississippi. A Public Hearing at that same school from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. will feature speakers such as the Rev. Dr. Al Sampson (one of the planners of the original Poor People's Campaign); long-time organizer Dr. John Perkins of the John M. Perkins Foundation; Snoop Dogg's father, Vernell Varnado; and Nation of Islam Student Minister Ava Muhammad. For more information about the poverty tour or the afternoon press conference event, call 985-229-8001.

The Southern Christian Leadership Council has organized an SCLC fundraiser breakfast and a Poor People's Campaign march in Jackson, Mississippi, for the following day, Saturday, June 20th. For more information about these events, call 404-522-1420.


antoinette harrell said...

Professor Hensley,

Thank you for all your support to have given to Gatherings of Hearts. You are a true fighter for social justice and equality for humanity.

Once again we thank you.

Anonymous said...

It is about time!

Changeseeker said...

It is, as always, a pleasure to be of service to those who fight for justice, Antoinette. Keep up the good work.

And Anonymous, I couldn't agree more!

Anonymous said...

I am so disappointed with SCLC for using this movement for their on selfish gains. How could they sale food as a fundraiser for their personal beneifts? I would like to thank Antoinette Harrell for being a true soldier to the mission.
God will bring Byron Clay down for making money on the poor.

Anonymous said...

Byron Clay should be a shame of himself. This man is telling lies, he didn't start this movement. Gathering of Hearts went to him and discuss the plans for the Poor People's Campaign.

I am a volunteer with Gatherings of Hearts. Antoinette Harrell has worked very hard on the issues of poverty. How could this man get on national television and tell lies?

We will not stand for it. We strongly suggest that SCLC take a look into this matter. We have media coverage on every poverty tour we took. Matter of fact, we can call on NPR to send a copy of the radio interview concerning Gatherings of Hearts planning the Poor People's Campaign March and Public Hearing.

Byron Clay you are not a leader and certainly not a man of God.

Changeseeker said...

Whatever we think of the recent actions of Byron Clay (and I posted on this already), I do think we also need to remember SCLC's role in history.

In the meantime, I hope we'll focus the bulk of our comments on the Gathering of Hearts event on the 19th.

Anonymous said...

Dear Readers,

This past October 08’ I had the pleasure of meeting Antoinette Harrell, a community activist from Louisiana working in the Mississippi Delta. I met Antoinette through a photographer friend documenting her work in these rural towns. There was an instant sense of camaraderie as she spoke about her passion for justice and I shared with her my experience in community development—we just clicked!—On this day quietly observing her interviewing the town’s residents my heart wept for their personal stories of struggle some so moving that at several points along the way I had to remove myself from the interviews and cry. I consider myself an educated woman and I’ve read many books and I’ve seen many things-- I grew up in the inner city where resources were limited but nothing like this—Antoinette was documenting family’s of former share croppers living with children in dilapidated shacks, without clean water, neighborhoods with no infrastructure, homes without electricity or stoves, kitchen cabinets empty—no food ...the list go on. I remember thinking this is our real history! The kind of history you don't learn about in school because it would hard be too hard and shameful to explain why this country allows such inhumanity.

Gathering of Hearts (GOH) was born that evening from disbelief that in 2009 our people still live this way. Antoinette and I shared our strong beliefs in the power of change and passion for advocacy. GOH is a new organization and we are learning as we go, but one thing can be said and said loud GOH is about people, our agenda is simple ---we care that people in these town continue to have hope. They have hope for their children and their community. What we are doing is showing people that POVERTY is real; our goal is to bring resources to these towns so we can begin making some of these hopes of a better life a reality.

Since then GOH has organized several relief efforts bringing clothing, food, water etc…all volunteer efforts including numerous Poverty Tours to shed light on needs of these communities. GOH was the new catalyst of the Poor People’s Campaign and will continue to work towards a better day for the people in the Delta and where necessary.

Join us on Friday, June 19th and let it be seen and known that justice for these communities is’s been way too long.

Thank You Antoinette for all that you do and how you continue to give yourself to our cause. It is an honor to support the Poor Peoples Campaign and all the people in the Delta.

Ines Soto Palmarin
Co-founder of GOH

Changeseeker said...

Thank you for adding this very moving comment, Ines. When I met you in Mississippi, I was deeply impressed with your humility and your commitment. I look forward to seeing you again on the 19th.

Anonymous said...

Gathering of Hearts,

Thank you for helping my family with the nice clothing and other items. It is people like you make me know that this world is a beautiful place to live. I read the article were Byron Clay pledge ten thousand dollars to the Brown Family. Did they give the donation to this family?

Please keep up the good work. Gathering of Hearts has the right name.

Melodie Burns

Changeseeker said...

Thanks for dropping by, Melodie. I'm glad Gathering of Hearts could help your family.

Changeseeker said...

NOTE TO READERS: I always want my blog to inform. I never want my blog to be used vindictively because that's not an effective way to produce the social change I support. One commentator is choosing to focus primarily on attacking Byron Clay, but I have deleted their last comment. As I said before, I already covered this issue in an earlier post and I am finished with it. I want to focus on the good work Gathering of Hearts is doing now.

antoinette harrell said...


Gathering of Hearts wishes to thank you for being a supporter of our organization. We can't thank you enough for all the support that you have given to our work.

Thank you for the many coats and blankets you blessed the people in the Delta with this pass winter. We are moving on strong. Because of people like you, we are now collecting books for a library and working on a park for the youth in Glendora, Ms.

We love and appreciate you. From our hearts to your heart.

Changeseeker said...

It is, quite literally, my pleasure to play a small part in the work of Gathering of Hearts, Antoinette. I celebrate every step your organization takes forward because it always serves the people most in need of that service.