The United Steelworkers building stands tall at the corner of Stanwix Street and Boulevard of the Allies, watching over the downtown Pittsburgh landscape. Early on June 23, the only thing stirring beneath it was a group of Just Harvest activists and United Steelworkers members boarding a coach bus.
We were joining tens of thousands of other people coming from across the country for a gathering of the national Poor People’s Campaign that had begun 40 days prior. (Or really, fifty years ago.)
When the bus arrived at the nation’s capital around 10:30 a.m., the Stand Against Poverty Mass Rally & Moral Revival had already begun. From the stage at the center of the National Mall, the percussive rhythm of drums filled the air, animating the crowd. It was impossible to resist the desire to dance. All around me were thousands of rally goers. I was surrounded by an incredibly diverse community.
After dancing, everyone's attention focused on the large screen on the left side of the stage. The video was an address from American bishop Michael Curry, who presided over the royal wedding in England just over a month ago (incorporating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his central philosophy behind the Civil Rights movement while doing so). In the video, Bishop Curry personally endorsed the Poor People’s Campaign as a movement that will change our country’s political agenda to one that protects human dignity and improves the lives of the under-served.
Our attention then returned to the stage, on which were Poor People’s Campaign state leaders, teachers, union members and students. One by one, each state leader of the Poor People’s Campaign introduced themselves, calling out the state they hailed from. The crowd hollered when larger states like New York and California – as well as battleground states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania – were announced. I’m sure there were over one hundred people standing on stage.
The crowd cheered when Reverend Dr. William Barber II stood at the microphone. With a reverence matched by his thunderous voice, he gave a sermon on how government does not work for the people; it has served corporate interests over people’s needs. Entire communities in this country still lack access to adequate nutrition and clean water. “How is it in this nation that you can buy unleaded gas, but not unleaded water?”
To make clear the somber truth of widespread poverty in the country, he emphasized that 140 million people are poor or low-income in the United States today. That’s almost half the nation’s population.
The call to moral revival is to reignite a passion for collective liberation. Poverty impacts many people in the U.S. regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, faith or ability, yet poverty is a commonality in the struggles that minority communities face.
The solutions are clear. For one, every job should provide a living wage, exclaimed the union members who spoke at the rally. Their words were echoed by Kim Miller, Director of Rapid Response for the United Steelworkers Union, during the bus ride back to Pittsburgh. She related that “unions are the organized forces that are holding the line for civil rights.” Even after the civil rights movement waned in the 1970s, unions kept the flame of collective action alive.
The spirit of collective action continues to remind us that unions, like the United Steelworkers, are a permanent part of the workforce. Despite years of attacks against them, they continue to protect workers and defend their rights.
This gives me hope for the future of working people and of civil activism in America.