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50 Years Later, Reviving King's Poor People's Campaign


Later today, thousands of low-wage workers, faith leaders and civil rights activists will protest in more than 30 state capitals and here in Washington, D.C. It is a revival of a movement that began 50 years ago. It was started by Martin Luther King. It was called the Poor People's Campaign. In 1968, the movement brought thousands of America's poor to Washington to put a face on those living in poverty. Today's movement tries to finish what King started. NPR's Brakkton Booker reports.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Terrence Wise (ph) lives in Kansas City and has three teenage daughters. He works full time for $10.25 an hour.

TERRENCE WISE: Yeah, I've been a fast food worker for the past 20 years. I truly enjoy my job and the work that I do, you know, customer service.

BOOKER: I reached him at home before he heads to his job as a shift manager at McDonald's. He admits life is a struggle at times.

WISE: And it's really dangerous when we're skipping meals or having to buy less food. Now you're not only struggling financially. You're possibly affecting the health of your family and your children. And this is just constant.

BOOKER: Wise will be one of the thousands of low-wage workers taking part in the nationwide protest. It was inspired by a movement 50 years ago. Just like the 1968 movement, today's campaign will last about 40 days. Pastor William Barber is a national co-chair.

WILLIAM BARBER: We will have what is called a nonviolent moral fusion direct action where people will come together and put their mouths and their bodies on the line to force the nation, the media to have to see and hear the people that are impacted.

BOOKER: The list of demands is long, calling for a higher minimum wage and a repeal of the 2017 federal tax law, ending gerrymandering. It also calls for an expansion of Medicaid in every state and an end to systemic racism, ecological devastation and military aggression, among other things.

BARBER: This is what Dr. King understood when he said you have to deal with militarism, poverty and racism together. They are interlocking injustices.

BOOKER: Barber insists this is only the beginning. Michael Jeffries is an associate professor of American studies at Wellesley College. He says the movement is coming at the right time, but the focus may be too expansive.

MICHAEL JEFFRIES: It is a lengthy list. And I think that's the piece of this that remains to be seen - is can you sustain a social movement with as many issues as Barber is targeting?

BOOKER: Barber, though, says the mission is worth it.

BARBER: We've never lost a fight for justice that we chose to fight.

BOOKER: The fights that have been lost, he says, are the ones no one chose to stand up for. Brakkton Booker, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.