Reflection on the Moral March in Washington, D.C.
Along with my spouse Jon, I had been to marches in Washington, D.C. in the past, but the Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on June 18th was especially memorable because of the following: the faith-based advocacy we witnessed and were a part of; the poignancy of the stories we heard from those most affected by injustices; the intersectional emphasis on “interlocking evils” such systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care, and the war economy; and the sheer numbers of people of all colors, faiths, walks of life, from every part of our country, gathered shoulder-to-shoulder marching and advocating for justice.
We went to the Lincoln Memorial on the eve of the Assembly/March for a memorial service and candle-light vigil for people who had died from COVID, systemic poverty, and racism. A wall had been erected, and during the service, there were lines of people waiting to write the names of their loved ones who had died. Rev. Dr. William Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis led the inspiring service of prayer, song, and preaching to remember those who had passed on and to prepare us for the next day.
Early on Saturday morning at 7:30AM, we went to the First Congregational Church of Washington, D.C. The gracious members of the church had set up tables outside with coffee and breakfast items and snacks and drinks for us to take to the Assembly, and we had a “meet and greet” outside, followed by a commissioning service in the sanctuary for the March and Assembly. Then, en masse, we marched, carrying our signs, and led by our UCC banner, to the site of the rally at Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street.
The five-hour rally included passionate testimonials from Revs. Theoharis and Barber, as well as by well-known activists, including Rev. Bernice King, MLK, Jr.’s daughter, former Vice-President Al Gore, and a rousing speech by former Harvard professor and political activist, Cornel West. Representatives from workers’ unions and secular progressive organizations, such as Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace, also spoke. The major theme of these speeches was that a complex of public policy failures conspires to keep the poor in poverty. Rev. Theoharis shared that as a Christian pastor, Biblical scholar and anti-poverty activist, “I believe we are called to build a movement where everybody’s in, nobody’s out. Throughout history, it’s been movements led by those most affected by injustice and poverty, working with faith communities and moral leaders, that have fundamentally transformed society.”
Rev. Barber, in his prophetic and inspiring way, stated the March and Assembly’s goals were to: call the nation to mourn, repent, and reconstruct how it treats poor and low-wealth people; to go beyond today’s action to shift the political narrative and advocate for policy decisions that address poverty and the low wealth of the economically disadvantaged; to demand a poverty summit with President Biden to get commitments to improve the welfare of the poor; and to have a vigorous get-out-the-vote campaign for the upcoming elections. He preached that the regressive policies that produce 140 million poor and low wealth people are forms of “policy murder.” He called us to task, saying, “We have a moral responsibility to speak up, to stand up, to show up and never shut up until all of our brothers and sisters can rise from the shackles of oppression, depression, suppression, and the violence of poverty, and be set free to live with the dignity of a livable wage, humane living conditions, access to affordable health care and housing, and the freedom to peacefully co-exist.”
After the well-known speakers, the most poignant part of the Assembly was hearing the stories of those particularly impacted by injustices. There were people who had lost their jobs, and worse, family members, because of COVID. Many had suffered from the diseases caused by environmental racism and extreme weather events. Students spoke of having no funds for food because of their thousands of dollars of educational debt. Others spoke of the violation of their dignity, worth and value by racist and/or greedy landlords, bosses, corporations, and our government.
Rev. Barber emphasized that the Assembly wasn’t a one-day event but a declaration of an ongoing, committed moral movement and that the time to act is now. He said that the moral conscience of our society must be shocked into action if we are to survive as a nation. He promised to keep up these appeals, saying that the Poor People’s Campaign will return to Washington, DC in September for “non-violent action all day in the halls of Congress.”
We were so glad we had been a part of this day with our other new UCC friends and other people of faith we met. We all now have our marching orders about what we need to work on going forward.
In driving back to Connecticut, some of Rev. Barber’s powerful last words floated in my mind: “Those of you that have gray hair, God has kept you alive for one more fight. Those of you who are middle-aged like me, God is telling you to fight because you’re living off the fight of other people. Those of you that are young, God has said it’s time for you to sign up. The question is never, ‘Why are you still here?’ The question is ‘What are you going to do?’” And then right before he bid us farewell, he encouraged us to turn to our neighbors, standing next to us in that crowd, and say, “As long as I got breath, I’m going to use my breath to breathe a little more justice, and more love and more truth in this society.” Amen.