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Poor People’s Campaign is the most urgent event that the media is ignoring

Real lives, real news.

POOR PEOPLE’S CAMPAIGN RALLY TOOK PLACE MONDAY ON THE NATIONAL MALL IN THE SHADOW OF THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT. THIS IS THE SAME SPACE A LARGER CAMPAIGN TOOK PLACE IN 1968. (THINK PROGRESS PHOTO – SAM FULWOOD III)
POOR PEOPLE’S CAMPAIGN RALLY TOOK PLACE MONDAY ON THE NATIONAL MALL IN THE SHADOW OF THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT. THIS IS THE SAME SPACE A LARGER CAMPAIGN TOOK PLACE IN 1968. (THINK PROGRESS PHOTO – SAM FULWOOD III)

Since kicking off an ambitious effort to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., anti-poverty activists have criss-crossed the land — marching, protesting, sitting-in, and speaking out in 40 state capitols.

On the surface, these activists seek to channel the enthusiasm and energy of the campaign that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in the midst of organizing at the moment of his death a half century ago. But more fundamentally, the current incarnation shares the same goal, as King lieutenant Rev. Ralph Abernathy explained, to “dramatize the plight of American’s poor of all races and make very clears that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”

Unfortunately, some things in America seem never to change. The damnable state of poverty in the U.S. — a condition which a recent United Nations report excoriated — remains a gross and overlooked fact of life in this wealthy nation. As the U.N. noted, about 40 million citizens live in poverty in the United States. Of that population, 18.5 million can be said to live in “extreme” poverty — with 5.3 million of that group living in Third World conditions of “absolute” poverty, as the U.N. defines these conditions. Nearly three out of every four impoverished Americans are women and children. Worse yet, more than a quarter million Americans die from causes directly related to living in poverty every year.

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis addresses the Poor People’s Campaign rally Monday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Think Progress photo - Sam Fulwood III)
The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis addresses the Poor People’s Campaign rally Monday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Think Progress photo - Sam Fulwood III)

Drawing attention to such depressing facts ought to be an easy-peasy outrage, enough to compel policy makers to do right by poor Americans. But that’s not the case.

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Despite two years of preparation, coordination with a network of existing and community-based anti-poverty organizations and charismatic leadership, the 2018 version of the Poor People’s Campaign has yet to become the talk of the nation.

On Monday, the campaign entered its sixth and final week, which will culminate with a planned rally Saturday at the U.S. Capitol. Since kicking off their campaign on Mother’s Day, organizers of the poor people’s campaign say protestors have gone to state capitols in about 40 states, where about 2,000 people have been arrested nationwide in planned demonstrationsBut they admit attention-seeking efforts have been frustrated by national news reports fixated on the daily outrages of the Trump administration.

The Poor People’s Campaign rally Monday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. drew a crowd that could be contained in a solitary tent in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Unlike the 1968 campaign which filled the Mall’s green space. (Think Progress photo – Sam Fulwood III)
The Poor People’s Campaign rally Monday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. drew a crowd that could be contained in a solitary tent in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Unlike the 1968 campaign which filled the Mall’s green space. (Think Progress photo – Sam Fulwood III)

Campaign co-chair Rev. Dr. William Barber, a North Carolina-based civil rights activist, vented his frustrations in a recent interview with the Associated Press, in which he criticized the fact that stories about poor Americans too often fail to compete for the media’s attention span with what he called “Trump porn” — the endless and excessive reporting of President Donald Trump’s tweets, investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election, salacious accusations of infidelity by adult film actress Stormy Daniels, and the many scandals of administration’s cabinet officials.

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For that reason, Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, another co-chair, say their efforts are only beginning with the current effort. As it moves beyond this week, the campaign will continue in a multi-year effort that registers voters, conducts political and policy teach-ins, and other civic activities aimed at combating poverty, racism, and militarism.

At the Monday rally on the National Mall, Theoharris addressed a crowd of several hundred activists, leading them in chants, cheers, and songs under a canvas tent that barely shielded them from a broiling sun. “We aren’t going to let them turn us around,” she shouted. “We only just getting started in our moral campaign.”

Fifty years ago, at the time he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, King was organizing an effort to bring poor people from across the nation — and especially from the rural and impoverished areas in the South — to confront federal lawmakers with the grim realities that they faced. Toward that effort, King said in his last sermon:

We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses … We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists … We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that is signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.

But unlike the 1968 campaign, which drew sustained national and international media coverage, the current effort has not been able to generate the excitement of its forebear. No doubt, part of the difference in publicity stems from the respective events in the nation at the time of the marches.

Fifty years ago, issues of poverty and civil unrest were front-page news, exacerbated by the assassinations of King and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-New York), as well as concerns about the Vietnam War. What’s more, the media of the day was different, with relatively fewer — and more authoritative — mainstream news outlets. The net effect was that Americans paid greater attention to the daily headlines, which in turn pushed them to think and compel public officials to respond more directly to current events.  

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Not today. As Trump dominates a never-ending, 24-hour cyber-news cycle, many Americans find themselves lurching from story to story without giving any of them much in the way of deep thought. As a result, politicians feel virtually no imperative to respond to the brief bursts of outrage that may flair up following a particular story. They know that today’s bad-weather news will blow over soon enough, replaced by another distracting tempest-of-the-day. So why get worked up about the news, especially if that news concerns something as unpopular or un-entertaining as the lives of poor people?

A Poor People’s Campaign worker checks her phone for messages during Monday’s kickoff rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Think Progress Photo – Sam Fulwood III)
A Poor People’s Campaign worker checks her phone for messages during Monday’s kickoff rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (Think Progress Photo – Sam Fulwood III)

At Slate, political reporter Dahlia Lithwick recently observed that the onslaught of Trump-based news — much of it outright lies or self-serving deceptions — has effectively rendered many Americans “numb” to civic matters. Nevertheless, as Lithwick acutely notes, immigrants, poor people, and many racial minorities affected by unfair or racist public polices don’t have the comfort of ignoring what’s going on in their lives and communities. She writes:

These are the folks who aren’t on the news. They aren’t exhausting to us because they’re not who we see. They also don’t have the luxury of being numb from the news because in some instances what’s on the news is quite literally killing them. It’s on the rest of us to filter out anything that allows us to become paralyzed and to see what is real, all around us—to take real action to affect the real lives all around us. It’s unfair in the extreme, weary friends, but the fact of the matter is that every time we say we are tired, or giving up, or tuning it all out in the name of self-care, somewhere a Steve Bannon gets a new pair of wings. Or as Barber put it to me, “We lose only when we get quiet.”

This is why the 2018 Poor People’s Campaign is necessary and deserving of greater, national attention. The reporters and editors who fail to provide coverage are committing daily acts of professional malpractice. It’s a crying shame that by overlooking the plight of poor Americans to report on the bottomless supply of foolishness from the White House, the national media is helping the administration to distract citizens and allowing policymakers to foresake their duty to address the real news of day.