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MLK’s ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ revived in North Carolina

Alice Lowery (foreground) speaks to the crowd at the Poor People’s Town Hall while event organizer Chelsea White looks on from backstage. Cory Vaillancourt photo Alice Lowery (foreground) speaks to the crowd at the Poor People’s Town Hall while event organizer Chelsea White looks on from backstage. Cory Vaillancourt photo

Two weeks ago marked the 53rd anniversary of a watershed moment in the civil rights movement — the Selma to Montgomery marches, where civil rights leaders including current Georgia Congressman John Lewis were badly beaten by Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

That week also marked resurgence in the Poor People’s Campaign, begun by Rev. Martin Luther King in 1967 to address social and economic injustice among all races — and as a recent gathering in Haywood County showed, the need is as great as it ever was. 

More than 50 years after MLK began the Poor People’s Campaign calling for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power,” that power has indeed been redistributed — but probably not in the way King intended. 

As America’s middle class shrinks, the rich are growing richer while others end up in poverty; Haywood County’s unemployment lingers near 4 percent, even though more than 17 percent of the county lives below the poverty line. 

But the causes of poverty now reach across racial, social and economic lines more than ever, prompting the revival of King’s campaign by former North Carolina NAACP head William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

On March 5 in Waynesville’s Folkmoot Friendship Center, several progressive groups gathered for the Poor People’s Campaign Town Hall, meant to draw awareness to the interconnectedness of these issues, according Chelsea White, an organizer with the event’s sponsor, Down Home North Carolina.

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“This is meant to address all of the interconnecting issues of poverty,” said White. “Poverty includes issues with housing, issues with ecological degradation, issues with the war economy, and issues with not valuing our families and our workers.”

Ecological degradation is what prompted the genesis of the Canary Coalition, which started off focused on air quality issues but quickly found out just how interconnected those issues are, said Executive Director Avram Friedman.

“You can’t just isolate air quality issues from every other environmental issue, but also social and economic issues,” he said. “Very often, people who are living in poverty suffer the worst consequences from environmental issues.”

Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of major social issues that transcend race to include environmental issues of a different sort. One speaker at the event, Samuel Malone, grew up predestined, in an environment that was beyond his control from the very beginning. 

“I was born addicted to drugs,” Malone said. “I’m 38 years old. I’m just now getting on the longest span of my life being clean, I’m 15 years sober from methamphetamines, I also have had an opioid addiction and I’m still in the methadone clinic for that, and I’m actually working my way out of that now.”

A 2011 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that overdoses were higher in states with higher poverty levels, suggesting that a greater percentage of the poor are opioid users. And where there are users, there will be pushers. 

“A lot of people don’t have anything else to do as far as work is concerned, so when they find somebody with drugs, drugs is easy money. It’s an idea of, ‘If I just do this for little while, maybe I can get out of this situation I’m in,’” he said. “That little while just tends to go on, and on, and on.”

Child abuse survivor Connie Jean Conklin also spoke at the event and told the crowd of over a hundred people how circumstances beyond her control sentenced her to a life of poverty. Conklin says the emotional trauma related to her abuse has made it hard for her to keep a job, or lead a stable existence.

“We’re struggling to fit in and know how to work within the system,” Conklin said. “We learn a dysfunctional way of coping, because that’s what worked in our home. It doesn’t work out in the real world. I’ve been homeless I can’t tell you how many times. As I’m older, it’s harder.”

Addiction, abuse, discrimination, pollution — all of them contribute to and help perpetuate poverty, but all are gargantuan and complex issues of their own. Still, the Canary Coalition’s Friedman was clear on what he thinks people can take away from the revival of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. 

“Well, I think it’s a greater awareness that we do have the power to fight together,” he said. “That’s exactly what we have to do.”

Initial actions planned by the group, including civil disobedience and rallies, will begin on Mother’s Day and continue for 40 days. 

Fighting a fight from 50 years ago is probably something King didn’t anticipate, either. But so long as poverty continues to affect people due to circumstances beyond their control — like the color of their skin, or the poor choices of a parent — King’s campaign will fight on.


Poor People’s event in Jackson County Saturday

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will host another town hall in Sylva; the meeting is free and open to the public. 

• Date: Saturday, March 24

• Time: 3 to 5 p.m.

• Location: Community Table, 23 Central Street, Sylva

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