Economic justice advocates march in Memphis, Tennessee on May 23, 2022.

Economic justice advocates march in Memphis, Tennessee on May 23, 2022. (Photo: Steve Pavey/Poor People's Campaign/Repairers of the Breach/Kairos Center)

'Not About Nostalgia': Poor People's Campaign Marches in Memphis Ahead of DC Gathering

"It's been 54 years since the sanitation worker's march," said Bishop William J. Barber II, "and right here in Memphis they still don't have union rights."

Low-wage workers from three southern states marched and rallied in Memphis on Monday, the final stop made by the revived Poor People's Campaign before it converges in Washington, D.C. next month.

"We need policy changes to include the protection and value of all our people, not just some."

The Mid-South Mobilization Committee, comprised of working people from Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi, led the demonstration, which can be viewed in full here. The march ended at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

It's been more than a half-century since King was killed while in Memphis to support the city's striking sanitation workers--a visit he made during the original Poor People's Campaign for economic justice.

But "this is not about nostalgia," Bishop William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC:NCMR), said at Monday's rally. "It's not about just remembering the path."

"For 50 years, we've been talking about what [King] did, but nobody picked it up," said Barber. "It's been 54 years since the sanitation worker's march, and right here in Memphis, they still don't have union rights."

AFSCME Local 1733 represents solid waste employees in Memphis, but a majority of workers in the city are not unionized. Just three months ago, several Starbucks workers in Memphis were illegally fired in retaliation for organizing for better wages, benefits, and conditions.

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the PPC:NCMR, said that the U.S. "must be serious about the suffering that is going on here."

"All of these years after Dr. King was killed: still no living wages, still attacks on the homeless, still the lack of healthcare, still the mass incarceration of our people, the poisoning of our water," she said, "and so close to the Mississippi Delta, where there's still the deepest poverty in this, the richest country ever to exist."

Starvation wages remain common throughout the region, with millions of people in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee struggling to survive. Corporations, meanwhile, have been raking in record profits amid a pandemic that has killed more than one million people in the U.S., with especially devastating impacts in poor counties. According to the Poor People's Campaign, roughly 140 million people nationwide were poor or low-income before Covid-19 struck, and poverty is correlated with an estimated 250,000 deaths each year.

"As a part-time waitress working for $2.13 an hour, relying on the kindness of strangers for tips, you can guess that benefits aren't included for people like me," said Murriel Wiley, a 31-year-old single mom from rural southwest Arkansas. "But that doesn't mean all service industry members deserve to have to go without seeing a doctor simply because they can't afford it."

"Rural voters matter," she said. "Waitresses and dishwashers and bussers matter--in the polls, at doctors' offices, and in every part of the United States."

Wiley said that she plans to be in the nation's capital on June 18 for the Mass Poor People's and Low-Wage Workers' Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls because "we need policy changes to include the protection and value of all our people, not just some, and all our voices deserve to be heard."

Last year, PPC:NCMR published a study highlighting the power that poor and low-income people--who constitute 47% of the electorate in Arkansas, 43% in Mississippi, and 39% in Tennessee--wield at the ballot box when they vote.

Georgia King, 82, who participated in the Poor People's Campaign organized by Dr. King, the National Welfare Rights Organization, and others when she was in her 20s, also spoke on Monday and encouraged people to travel to Washington, D.C. next month.

"Join me by cars, by buses, by airplanes," she said.

"I heard that some are going to be walking," added King, who once trekked 255 miles from Roanoke, Virginia to the nation's capital to fight for aid for the unhoused.

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