Poor People’s Campaign ramps up pressure for political reform
Before they returned to DC the Poor Peoples Campaign marched for voting rights in Texas. | Mario Cantu/CSM via Zuma Wire via AP

WASHINGTON—Including busloads of red-shirted Unite Here members from around the U.S., more than 2,000 people marshaled by the Poor People’s Campaign marched on the Capitol on August 2 to demand Congress enact comprehensive political reforms, re-strengthen the Voting Rights Act, end the Senate filibuster, legalize undocumented people and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Led by the Revs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis, veteran civil rights crusader the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Unite Here President D Taylor, they also promised to raise the pressure on reluctant and resistant lawmakers of both parties—plus Democratic President Joe Biden—if the wide-ranging program isn’t passed by August 6.

That’s when senators plan to quit town for a month-long recess. And since they’re wrestling with a 2,700-page $1 trillion five-year infrastructure bill, passage of political reforms seems unlikely by then. The House has already left, irking progressive lawmakers there.

August 6 is also the anniversary of then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s signature of the Voting Rights Act. Speakers, including his daughter Luci Baines Johnson, made that point. Both of Johnson’s daughters, Luci and Lynda, attended and marched up Capitol Hill.

Barber told the crowd before they started the trek from D.C.’s massive railroad terminal, Union Station, the political reforms are absolutely necessary. Nobody disagreed. Indeed, chants such as “Hey, hey, ho, ho, the filibuster’s got to go!” and “What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” punctuated the pre-march rally.

“The people that will lead us will be the preachers and the workers. This will be no photo-op,” Barber declared, despite the presence of dozens of cameras. “We have a moral crisis in this nation.” They emphasized it with peaceful civil disobedience at march’s end.

The campaign pushed all its goals. But the comprehensive political reforms of the For The People Act and the restoration and strengthening of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, through the John Lewis Act—named after the late civil rights icon and Atlanta congressman—were a big topic. They weren’t the only ones.

Speakers said people nationwide must stand up and march because without curbing the baleful influence of corporate interests, big money, and their right-wing allies, democracy is in danger. That influence even appeared in the first coronavirus aid law, approved during the reign of former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump.

“Eighty-four percent of that (money) went to corporations,” Barber said. Meanwhile, Trump’s edict “making ‘essential workers’ work without giving them a living wage is a sin.”  That’s why the $15 federal minimum wage is a key plank marchers tout.

“It comes down to ‘Which side are you on?’” he added, quoting the union song.

Still, the future of democracy was a constant theme. “We are here today because we are compelled to be here. There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” Theoharis added. “When the very foundation of justice and democracy is under attack, people must stand up.”

“Black and brown people are the base of the (Democratic) party,” declared Jackson, after Unite Here’s Taylor and another speaker introduced him. But while that line struck a partisan note, the rest of the veteran preacher’s remarks didn’t.

“If we lose,” he said of the marchers’ goals, “they lose. If we lose, democracy loses. If we lose, progress loses. If we lose, the nation loses. And it loses its honor and its credibility in the world…We are in a crisis of unusual proportions.”

Barber hit a similar note: “Trump was a problem, but he wasn’t the only problem.”

Others include the rest of the GOP repressing the right to vote and the strident defense of the Senate’s filibuster and its 60-vote requirement, which hamstrings legislation to help workers, the poor and the near-poor. Sen. Joe Machin, D-W. Va., the 50-50 chamber’s most conservative Democrat, upholds that and Barber called him out for doing so.

“Some will try to change the narrative, and say this is only about voting rights,” Barber said of foes of the Poor People’s Campaign’s wide-ranging agenda, including elimination of poverty, a 50% cut in military spending, and opposition to white nationalism.

“No, no, no, no, no.”

“And do you know some Democrats told us, ‘If you organize, don’t connect wages and voting rights.’ And we’ve been saying to the White House they’ve gotta meet with a diverse group of clergy and a diverse group of workers” on preserving democracy and other issues.

“This isn’t just Jim Crow,” Barber said of Republican-pushed voter repression, which the For The People Act would wipe out. “This is Jim Crow, Esquire.”

Barber also pointed out the reactionaries oppose not just voting rights, worker rights, and civil rights, but the wider agenda. Biden’s staff, he added, is concentrating on infrastructure.

“The same people who suppress your votes are the people who block living wages, who won’t let you have health care, who won’t even fix the electric grid” to prevent Texas-style blackouts, added Barber, fresh off a four-day voting rights march in the Lone Star State.

“But the White House is saying ‘We gotta do infrastructure first.’”

That’s unacceptable. “If you pass an infrastructure bill to fix roads and bridges, but not a bill to fix the infrastructure of democracy, this nation will pay a deep price.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.