Fresno Poor People’s Campaign and Statewide Public Hearing April 8, 2019
By Emily Brandt and Hannah Brandt
March 31, 2019
On Monday, April 8, 2019, residents of the City of Fresno and the rest of the Central San Joaquin Valley are invited to a revival of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and March on Washington. The assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 — a mere 18 days before the momentous occurrence was scheduled to happen — forced organizers to move it from April 22, 1968, to May 12, 1968. The 2019 Central Valley event — a stop on the California Poor People’s Campaign Bus Tour — is being called the Fresno Poor People’s Campaign and it will host a Statewide Public Hearing.
This local rally and march are being coordinated by Rev. Dr. Floyd D. Harris, Aline Reed, and Maria Else, P.H., as a call to action and more than just a commemoration of the expansion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s activism. It will go beyond the issues of voting rights and civil rights in general, to demands for legislation to address the specific needs of African Americans and the poor. These demands are very specific and fully developed in the document called “A Moral Agenda Based on Fundamental Rights” which is grounded in the findings of an April 2018 report called “The Souls of Poor Folk.” The latter is a reference to The Souls of Black Folk, the seminal 1903 book by early civil rights leader W.E.B. DuBois. Harris and Reed believe this is an opportunity for a moral reckoning and a reassertion to meaningful activism in the City of Fresno and nearby communities.
What is this 2019 campaign all about? To answer that, we need to look carefully at what is inside the aforementioned twenty-three-page 2018 document that forms the groundwork for a revival of the work begun by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of other activists, freedom fighters and people of unbreakable courage. It is divided into two major sections called “I. Declaration of Fundamental Rights and Poor People’s Moral Agenda” and “II. History and Moral Justification.”
The first section includes “Systemic Racism,” “Poverty and Inequality,” “Ecological Devastation,” “War Economy and Militarism,” and “National Morality,” that detail very clearly articulated failures of government and society, as well as, direct attempts to undermine, exploit and abuse poor people throughout the history of the United States.
The second section on the “History and Moral Justification” reflects deeply on sacred literature, including the Bible and the Q’uran, and on the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and finally, on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of the Child and the United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People in what Dr. King called, “a revolution of values” which he invited “all people who have been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’ — militarism, racism, and economic injustice — to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist.” The 2018 document by Rev. Dr. William Barber II continues discussing the work of Dr. King and his followers in 1968 by saying: “They sought to build a broad, fusion coalition that would audit America. Together, they would demand an accounting of promissory notes that had been returned marked “insufficient funds.”
This nationwide Poor People’s Campaign event is led by Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Rev. Liz Theoharis, following the inaugural campaign last year on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 event. Half a century after the original platform, it is a call to address those unfulfilled demands “. . . to secure Federal legislation ensuring full employment and promoting the construction of low-income housing to raise the quality of life of the nation’s impoverished citizens.” (https://bit.ly/2I5LHI5) The work in 1968 was carried out by people from a wide range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, from across all geographic areas of the county, including African Americans from Washington D.C. and elsewhere, Latinos from the Southwest, Native Americans from reservations, and West Virginia’s poor whites.
On the grounds in front of the White House, they established what was called Resurrection City, which was a 7,000 person strong tent city at its peak. The focus of the 21st-century revival has moved out of the nation’s capital to the legislatures across this country. According to the flyer, the hope is that “The Statewide public hearing will confront the economic apartheid in one of the highest agricultural-producing regions. We want to invite all Californians to join us in our demand for justice: “National Emergency Poverty and Truth Bus Tour’ Comes As President Trump Peddles Lies with His Border Emergency Declaration!!”
Fresno is identified internationally as one of the poorest cities to live in the United States. It comes by that notoriety only because of Southwest Fresno, a geographically isolated district with a long history of disinvestment where the vast majority of the city’s African American citizens have been forced to live. Do we see emergency efforts to clean up the air and the government? As Rev. Harris stated: “You know I think there are different messengers in different times. King was a messenger, and look what happened to him. Medgar Evers was a messenger, look what happened to him. The Black Panthers were messengers, and look what happened to them. The list goes on. Black Wall Street in 1921 was a movement and look what happened to it. And so we have to understand that really what’s embedded in all of this situation is white supremacy.
It’s really in the root of the tree. The tree may look good from the ground up, but it’s what the roots are underneath; it’s white supremacy from the start that is the root of the evil in the 21st century and Americans do not want to have a conversation about it. There are even white liberals in this community right now who do not want to have a conversation about this who are using their privilege . . . Instead of using it in the right way, they use it in the wrong way and then when you address the conversation, you become the villain. Then you become ostracized. . . Wait a minute, I’ve done this. . . But then we have the audacity every year to insult my ancestors: Dr. King, all those Freedom Fighters who came and left, who were murdered, assassinated. . . to honor their birthday with this hypocrisy every year in the city.”
The capstone of these events happening throughout the United States will be the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress in Washington, D.C. on June 17–19, 2019. Details can be found in the flyer above and at the website www.poorpeoplescampaign.org. The only real worthwhile culmination of these efforts will be when we hear poor communities — and first in line is Southwest Fresno — say that they have mastered their own destinies from the grasp of the city, state and federal overlords who steal it every time.
4/10/19 Update with photos and videos from the event. Around 100 people participated. After a press conference, the march went from Poverello House at 412 F Street to the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission Headquarters at 1805 W. California Street, both in West Fresno. Photos and videos by Emily Brandt.