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It was mid-June, muggy, and the bus from Louisville, Kentucky to Washington, D.C. was cramped. Erica Perry's six-year-old son sprawled across her chest. A 27-year-old mother of three boys, Perry had booked four narrow seats for herself, her two eldest sons, and her mother on a charter bus sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots social justice organization. The bus carried Perry and 56 fellow Kentuckians for two nights, over 24 hours total, in order for riders to spend just seven hours in Washington. In those seven hours, they planned to join over 2,000 members of the Poor People's Campaign for a march and rally on the National Mall.

The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, is a two-year-old movement organized by faith leaders Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis. According to its website, the campaign focuses on five key issues including "systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the nation's distorted morality." People in more than 35 states rallied in their capitals for 40 days of themed protests culminating in nationwide marches on Saturday, June 23. According to the Washington Post, more than 300 people were arrested over the 40 days.

Kentuckians stand in solidarity behind their "Kentucky Poor People's Campaign" banner waiting for the march to begin. Credit: Austyn Gaffney

To attend the march, Perry took off three days of work. She typically works twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week at an auto parts factory. Both she and her husband hold degrees in Business Administration, and although her career is not in her field, it's the best job she could find. Her husband drives for Uber and has a t-shirt business.

Perry herded her family from the bus to the subway to the crowd that was assembling ahead of the rally. She yelled for her youngest son, nicknamed Country, to pay attention on the escalator, tie his shoe, and pull up his pants.

"I wanted to bring my kids because my mom brought me," she said. Her mother, Donna Crawford, took her to almost a dozen marches growing up. "If there's still injustice when they have children, I want them to bring their own kids too. It's a tradition. We fight for what's right and we fix what's wrong."

Perry, fearful of losing her mother, called to Crawford as she began to wander away. According to Perry, her mother suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after years in the military.

"My mom convinced me to come," said Perry. "She told me, Erica, you are one of those [poor] people! You're working all these hours and both you and your husband have an income but you still need assistance cause it's not enough."

Perry must supplement her family's income with Social Security Insurance and food stamps.

"I'm a very prideful person," said Perry, beginning to cry, "and I wish I didn't have to take it. But I can't pay my bills without it. And we work two to three jobs sometimes so that we can make ends meet and don't have to take as much. I'm not one that wants a handout but I don't have a choice. And it makes me emotional sometimes because I'm like, why can't I do more to support my family? It hurts."

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Kentucky's involvement with the Poor People's Campaign began months earlier.

Arnold Farr, a father of four from Lexington, joined the state coordinating committee of the Poor People's Campaign in January of 2018. He helped plan six weeks of nonviolent direct action in Frankfort, the state capital, leading up to the Washington march. On the morning of the first rally, Mother's Day, he tied an armband around his bicep. It signaled he would engage in direct action at risk of arrest.

"I'm the grandson of sharecroppers and two grandmothers who weren't able to get more than a seventh grade education, because they had to go back and work in the fields," said Farr, who has a PhD in Philosophy and teaches at the University of Kentucky. "But they were the sweetest wisest women you'd ever want to meet. We had a very close bond. Wherever I go, I take my grandmothers into the room with me."

Farr said he was excited to participate in the biggest movement he'd seen in his lifetime, one that renewed a 50-year-old call to arms from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated months into the campaign's first iteration. In April of 1968, King went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support sanitation workers who were on strike. The night before he died, King told the group, "We've got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We've got to see it through."

"But the difference with this movement," Farr explained, comparing the present campaign to King's in the 1960's, "is its emphasis on intersectionality. We're looking at multiple forms of oppression and how they all intersect. We're dealing with poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, and environmental devastation because they're all connected…The powers that be in our country have been very successful at a divide and conquer strategy. We need to never let it work again."

"My mom convinced me to come," said Perry. "She told me, Erica, you are one of those [poor] people! You're working all these hours and both you and your husband have an income but you still need assistance cause it's not enough."

During the second week of action in May, Farr and sixteen of his fellow protestors elevated this message. They sang in the Capitol rotunda, draped a sheet over a statue of Jefferson Davis, which security immediately removed, and then they refused to leave the Capitol building until the following morning.

"We didn't intend to stay all night," said Farr, "but we felt we hadn't made our point yet."

During the next four weeks of rallies in Frankfort, Gov. Matt Bevin unveiled a new "policy" that prohibited more than two members of the Poor People's Campaign from entering the Capitol building at a time. According to Farr, there is now a legal battle over whether obstructing the entrance to the Capitol was unconstitutional.

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The Kentucky rallies gained national coverage after the large group of protestors was banned from the Capitol. State organizers used the coverage to reach out to more people directly impacted by the campaign's issues, like Perry, and encouraged them to come to Washington.

Rochelle Butler, a mother of three grown children and eight grandchildren, grew up in New Orleans. She moved to Louisville 18 years ago, seeking a better school system for her kids and a better life for herself. After a divorce and subsequent health issues, Butler lost her business.

Butler now spends her time volunteering at local churches, and is making plans for a new business venture. One of those churches, led by a Poor People's Campaign committee member, encouraged Butler to get involved. She attended her first rally in Frankfort in May. Traveling to Washington marks the second rally of her life.

"[The Poor People's Campaign] was important [to me] because number one, I know what it's like to be poor. I've lived in the projects, I came up in the projects. I've seen a lot of shootings and I've seen people get out and do very well. So it's not where you come from, it's what you do with where you come from."

"The Poor People's Campaign was important to me because number one, I know what it's like to be poor."

Corey Logan shares Butler's sentiment. Originally from Boston, Logan moved to Lexington, in 1993 to work in the horse industry. Before long, he lost his job, and worked in car washes, hotels, and restaurants for about a year until he was arrested on drug charges.

"One hundred and eighty-seven people were arrested in a roundup," Logan recalled. "It was one of Lexington's biggest drug busts ever. It was 15 days before my twenty-first birthday."

Logan said he had no prior charges more serious than speeding tickets or noise complaints, but he was sentenced to eight years in prison. He served 19 months and then received parole. Several years later, he was charged with complicity when a friend was arrested for drugs. He spent another 19 months in prison before again receiving parole. Fifteen years later, Logan has his GED and an associates degree, which he achieved while working two jobs and supporting two children.

Logan found out about the Poor People's Campaign through one of its Kentucky chairpersons and a mutual friend, Tayna Fogle. She invited him to speak about mass incarceration during an action in Frankfort. Weeks later, he spoke about health care. Then he went to Washington.

"Today was a great day," he said, sitting on a shady patch of lawn after the march. "I wouldn't have missed this for the world. I would've jumped on somebody else's bus or I would've driven my own vehicle here. I hope the movement keeps going, and I hope everything we're fighting for can be accomplished in November with the election."

"Quite often poverty, and why people are in poverty, is defined by people who've never been in poverty. So you have the wrong narrator telling a false narrative. We're changing that. Poor people are speaking for themselves."

At the end of the march, I caught up with Farr (who helped plan the protests in Frankfort) and asked him what he hoped the campaign would accomplish. He, like other campaign leaders, emphasized that the first 40 days was just the beginning of an ongoing movement. He spoke about a mass push for voter turnout in November of 2018, and again in 2020.

"The first phase brought our issues to national awareness and secondly, and more importantly, changed the narrative and the narrator. Quite often poverty, and why people are in poverty, is defined by people who've never been in poverty. So you have the wrong narrator telling a false narrative. We're changing [that]. Poor people are speaking for themselves. It [the Poor People's Campaign] will have to bring about complete social change. If it doesn't," Farr said, echoing King, "we're not finished."

Austyn Gaffney

Austyn Gaffney is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in HuffPost, onEarth, Sierra, Southerly, and Vice. You can find her stories at www.austyngaffney.com, and follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @austyngaffney.