“We must learn to live together as brothers or we are going to perish together as fools.” This was the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote on my button on April 4, 2015, when I travelled to Philadelphia to take part in the “Poor People’s Campaign: A March to End Poverty.” The demonstration was organized by MLK D.A.R.E (Day of Action, Resistance and Empowerment) Coalition, which previously organized several thousand people on January 19, MLK Day. This time there were fewer groups represented, but at least dozens of groups and 300 persons came out to honor the 47th anniversary of King’s assassination. (Philly.com claimed there were “more than 100 people,” but the Philadelphia Tribune more accurately wrote that “Hundreds crammed” inside the church prior to the rally). The demands of the coalition included “$15.00 an hr, [sic] the right to unionize, and full employment in the city of Philadelphia.”
The Reclaim MLK demonstration set out to reclaim King’s work in 1968 during his Poor People’s Campaign, when he worked with poor sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, while planning a Poor People’s March to Washington, D.C. King was assassinated during the Memphis campaign on April 4, causing riots to erupt in over a hundred cities nationwide that same day. King’s focus on economic justice intensified during the last few years of his life, after realizing integration was meaningless as long as the evil of poverty still existed in society. As a democratic-socialist, he demanded full employment, decent wages, and the elimination of poverty.
The MLK rally was but just one of many rallies that took place over the weekend across the nation. With April 4 landing on a Saturday, and Easter Sunday landing on April 5, the weekend as a whole was designated as “Holy Week of Resistance,” with the hashtag #ReclaimHolyWeek. For example, on Friday, April 3, hundreds of people organized in NYC for the No New NYPD Rally & March, protesting the city’s objective to try and hire 1,000 new NYPD officers. On Easter Sunday, hundreds marched in Harlem in the “People’s Resurrection March.” Similar demonstrations were held in other major cities.
In Philadelphia on April 4, hundreds gathered inside the New Vision UMC-Central Campus church, where union representatives, low wage workers, religious clergy, students and poor people spoke about the misery of poverty surrounding Philadelphia and other cities around the nation. Sharon Sobukwe, a political science professor at Eastern University, spoke about how 45 million persons, or 15 percent of the nation, still live in poverty today, although the percentage of impoverished blacks is at 28 percent. She then added that Philadelphia leads the nation with the highest poverty rates. Rev. Gregory Holston, senior pastor of New Vision, stated: “The city of Philadelphia is the biggest, poorest city in the country, the third poorest in the nation; in the two zip code areas around this church you have about a 30 to 40 percent poverty rate.” (The Philadelphia Tribune, April 4, 2015) Rev. Mark Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, explained why we marched for $15 Now: “The idea that we’re calling for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, that’s the exact same amount that King was calling for with the $2-an-hour wage back in the 1960s – when you adjust it for inflation it comes out to $15.47.” Other speakers included a mother working at McDonalds, Temple students fighting for better wages and Kate Goodman of Philly-15 Now.
After the fiery speeches inside the church, over 300 persons marched several blocks up North Broad. Cheri Honkala, vice presidential candidate for the Green Party in 2012, led the chants for the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and later denounced the current economic system during her speech. Other groups marching included the Philadelphia Ethical Society, POWER, PA-National Action Network, First United Methodist Church of Germantown, People Utilizing Real Power (PURP), 15 NOW, and many more. Union representatives carried signs that read “I am a Man,” a unifying civil rights slogan that emerged during King’s Memphis campaign in 1968. Representing numerous causes that I’ve fought for in the past, I carried a sign that read: “Legalize Cannabis, Black Lives Matter, 15 NOW, Full Employment.” Most of the organizations involved in the coalition support the Black Lives Matter movement, especially the religious coalition of Christian and Jewish clergy members in POWER, which organized the Die-In that I took part in after the Eagles game on December 7.
Most interesting of all was the fact that the Nation of Islam (NOI) provided security for the demonstration. Wearing suites and bowties with short-cut hair, the all-black NOI members looked like they were police officers undercover, but were in fact providing a defense line for the demonstrators. During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the NOI, as well as its star-member Malcolm X, refused to get involved in politics and argued for separation of the races and for Self-Defense, as opposed to King’s call for integration and nonviolence. Therefore King and Malcom X never worked together, but unknown to most people, Malcolm X offered to work with King in June 1964, when Malcolm was politically active after being removed from the NOI. Believing correctly that the federal government had no interest in protecting civil rights workers in the South, Malcolm offered to deploy his own people there to act as self-defense units capable of fighting off the KKK. To reporters, Malcom characterized these groups as “guerilla squads… The Klan elements in the South are well known. We believe that whenever they strike against the Negro, the Negro has a chance to strike back.” (Manning Marable, “Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,” 2011, p. 357) Since King was wholly devoted to nonviolence, he didn’t take the request too seriously. Now, more than 50 years later, the MLK D.A.R.E. Coalition took the security offer by the NOI, knowing fully well that the rally would remain nonviolent due to valid permits and cooperation with the police.
The march concluded with a rally in the middle of the intersection of North Broad & Butler Street, directly outside Zion Baptist Church. Cars driving by honked in support while several speeches were made by religious members and Juwan Dickerson, the brother of Brandon Tate-Brown, who was killed by a police officer during a traffic-stop on December 15 in North Philadelphia. Dickerson expressed how his brother worked at least 5 jobs just to feed himself, only to be shot down by police for being black.
Nearly every person emphasized the importance of the “largest low-wage worker protest in modern history” coming up on Wednesday, April 15, with thousands expected to participate in numerous cities. Fight For 15 PA organized Philadelphia’s strike to take place on Broad & Arch at 3:00, where fast food workers will picket along with minimum wage airport workers and teacher unions, along with an economic boycott of all fast-food restaurants. The 15 Now NJ branch planned small pickets to take place outside Target stores throughout the state, although as of now the specifics are vague. I plan on protesting in Philadelphia and New Jersey as long as time permits me to do so. April 15 will also be the 3rd day of the “March 2 Justice – NYC to Washington, D.C,” an eight-day march sponsored by the Justice League NYC that aims to end police brutality and the murder of black victims by police. Lastly, April 15 is also the International Global Rally for the Homeless, with demonstrations taking place nationwide, and a local rally at the Trenton, NJ, State House at 10:00 A.M., which I also hope to attend. With so many events happening at once it will be hard to choose which one to attend, but as long as people come out en masse to any of these, then it may not be too long before we begin to see meaningful victories for the Underdogs of society. Ideally, I would like to see all of these forces, including cannabis organizations, unite into one giant coalition because, as King observed, “We must learn to live together as brothers or we are going to perish together as fools.” Let us honor King by putting away our differences so that we can “live together as brothers.”