Why the South needs a Poor People's Moral Action Congress

Activists with the North Carolina Poor People's Campaign participated in the Truth & Poverty Bus Tour to learn about poverty in their state. They will take what they found to the Poor People's Moral Action Congress to be held in Washington, D.C., next month. (Photo via the North Carolina Poor People's Campaign Twitter account. The author is in the front row wearing a black T-shirt.)

Poor people across the nation will bring their demands to the nation's capital next month at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress, a gathering organized by the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival.

In recent months, organizers with the campaign have led Truth & Poverty Bus Tours through nearly 30 states nationwide, including nearly every Southern state, to shine light on the impact of public policies on poor people. The tours have informed the campaign's demands and helped it draw up what's being called a "Moral and Constitutional Budget" that will seek to end poverty in America instead of proliferating it.

I had the opportunity to participate in last week's North Carolina Truth & Poverty Bus Tour as an executive committee member of the state's Poor People's Campaign* and as a researcher concerned with the connection between public policy and poverty. It's one thing to read that in my home state nearly 9,000 people are homeless and nearly half of the state's residents don't make a livable wage, but it is quite another to hear people's stories firsthand.

The tour started in the Western North Carolina mountain community of Asheville. There we met members of the Beloved Community, which is likely the first group in the country to start a street medic team comprised of homeless and formerly homeless people. Their work underscores the fact that, in a state which has not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, thousands of people lack access to health care, and it is often left up to community members to try to meet the needs of the most vulnerable. 

In the Piedmont city of Charlotte, which has gotten national attention for its dramatic disparities between the rich and the poor, we learned about how gentrification has pushed residents out of their neighborhoods. We also met citizens currently experiencing homelessness, some of whom decided to join the bus tour. After driving 100 miles northeast to Greensboro, we literally walked the line that splits North Carolina A&T State University— the nation's largest historically black university — into two separate voting districts, causing confusion and forcing students to re-register to vote when they move to another side of campus.

"Right now, too many people are suffering, Black and Brown," said Guimel Krenzler, a tour participant in Sanford, a Sandhills community that was recently the target of ICE raids.

Recognizing that he was privileged to have been born in the U.S., Krenzler said he wants to obtain a law degree because he has seen the devastating impact of immigration policies on his hometown. He also noted that too many of his neighbors are struggling to survive on the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour while simultaneously fearing that at any moment they might be arrested by ICE.

"In the history of man," Krenzler said, "when suppressed groups don't stand together, they don't win." And that is what we witnessed all across the state: suppressed groups standing together.

Our next stop was in Robeson County along the South Carolina border. With its large population of African Americans and Native Americans, Robeson is among the 10 percent of U.S. counties classified as "majority-minority." But Robeson resident Donna Chavis with the environmental group Friends of the Earth pushed back against using the term "minority" to describe people of color, noting that when people of color, the poor, and dispossessed come together, they make up the majority.

Besides being one of North Carolina's most diverse counties, Robeson is also the state's unhealthiest, and one where residents are still reeling from the effects of recent hurricanes, poorly regulated industrial livestock operations, and the looming threat of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline's construction.

"We have a lot of negative indicators," Chavis said, but "we also have a can-do spirit."

Our next stop was in Eastern North Carolina's rural Duplin County, where residents are also dealing with the aftermath of hurricanes and pollution from industrial livestock operations. We heard from community members working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and from leaders of the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), a nonprofit that works to ensure people's basic human needs are met. As REACH Administrative Director Larry Cooper said, everyone in the community has something to contribute to the discussion on policy and poverty because "we all have Ph.D.'s," he said. "We are poor, hungry, and determined."

In my own city of Durham, we stood in front of the county courthouse and heard stories about people who are languishing in jail not because they have been convicted of a crime but because they don't have the resources to bail themselves out. We even heard about people who have died in jail when they should not have been there in the first place.

The last day of the tour fell on May 1, International Workers' Day. During the day, we went to Raleigh to join in solidarity with thousands of teachers and other school workers who marched on the legislature to demand better pay and more funding for schools. That evening, we headed back to Durham to take part in a May Day March organized by a coalition of groups including the Durham Workers Assembly, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and UE Local 150, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union.

The march ended at a McDonald's, where marcher and bus tour participant Eshawney Gaston used to work. She gave a powerful speech about how at her current job with Waffle House, a Georgia-based company that rakes in at least $100 million in revenue each year, she's expected to survive on $3 an hour plus tips, which often doesn't even add up to the minimum wage. As a result, she's currently homeless.

"All the hard work I do," said Gaston, who's also involved in the Fight for $15 movement for a higher minimum wage, "and I don't make enough for the rent, and I don't make enough to pay the rent deposit."

The anti-poverty campaigners will converge in Washington, D.C. from June 15 to 17 for the congress. Besides releasing the moral budget, they will hold a National Freedom School inspired by the temporary alternative schools organized by and for African Americans during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They will also invite the current slate of presidential candidates to a forum where they will unveil the budget and their other demands.

* Rev. William Barber, the national co-chair of the campaign, is the author's father.