Rebekah Hall

A diverse chorus of voices joined together to sing “Freedom Ain’t Free” at the Arkansas Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival event on Monday evening in Little Rock. Hosted by the Arkansas PPC, the walls of Rufus K. Young Christian Church at 2100 Main St. were covered in signs spreading the message of the movement, such as “Denying Health Care is Violence,” “Ecological Devastation is Immoral” and “Systemic Racism is Immoral.”

Originally conceptualized in 1968 by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. along with other faith leaders and leaders of the poor, the PPC was a rallying cry by poor folks, for poor folks. They demanded better jobs, better homes and better education, and the campaign was revolutionary in its ability to bring together marginalized people across spectrums of rage, age and occupation from all over the country. After King’s assassination in April 1968, the PPC still held a massive mobilization in June of over 50,000 people in a shantytown, known as Resurrection City, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The movement lost steam after King’s death and the assassination of Robert Kennedy, a crucial advocate for the campaign. But it was recently revived by Rev. Drs. William Barber II and Liz Theoharis, along with thousands of organizers and participants, who are calling for a “national moral revival” armed with a set of demands to address the current needs of America’s poor and low-income individuals and families. The PPC says nonviolent action, and the radical inclusivity and uplifting of marginalized voices is at the core of its mission.

At the event in Little Rock, people of different race, gender and age filled the sanctuary, including the upstairs loft. Barber was scheduled to attend, but Theoharis said one of his parishioners had just been diagnosed with aggressive cancer and Barber had stayed in North Carolina to pray with her in the hospital. The event began with organizers leading attendees in hymns about freedom and justice, and different faith leaders from the community read statistics from The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign, including the troubling statistic that 46 percent of Arkansans are poor and low income, according to the report.

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The focus of the event was the testimonies of six individuals affected by the “interlocking injustices” at the core of the PPC’s mission work: systemic racism, systemic poverty and inequality, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism and national morality. The panelists shared personal stories and called for action surrounding the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated citizens, mass incarceration and a switch from punitive justice to restorative justice.

Ruby Welch introduced herself, then said, “I’m also known in the state of Arkansas as 706416.” Welch was incarcerated in 1999 within the Arkansas Department of Corrections. “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” she said. “Upon my release in 2006, I found myself faced with a lifetime list of what I call my ‘I can’t’ stipulations. … I can’t marry, buy a car, or make any large purchases without first obtaining permission. But my greatest ‘I can’t’ is that I can’t vote until my entire term limit has been served or I receive a pardon.” Welch was sentenced to 30 years, 7 of which she completed. “People have come up with the terminology ‘returning citizen,’ and I do not, will not, and cannot identify as a citizen of these United States,” she said.

Local activist Maria Meneses spoke emotionally about issues facing Arkansas immigrants, including the risks of not having driver’s licenses and the fear instilled in communities policed by ICE. “Separation of families doesn’t just occur at the border, it occurs here in our own state,” she said.

Michael Martin, a U.S. Air Force veteran, spoke about his severe depression and anxiety, his experiences with drug and alcohol abuse, his work with veterans with PTSD, and his exhaustion with the false narrative that “people like myself are weak, lazy and immoral,” he said.

Emily Kearns read the words of Barbara Bouie, a lifelong resident of Crossett about the devastating effects of pollutants from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill and chemical company on the health of its workers and residents. Bouie’s story, and the larger story of Crossett, were told in the documentary, “Company Town.”

Rev. Carol Blow spoke about her experiences facing discrimination as the first African-American graduate of Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock, as a woman pastor and as a single mother of four adoptive children. “When we take down the fences between our yards, we are also taking down the fences in our hearts,” she said. “That is when we really begin to know and love our neighbors and make peace with one another.”

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Zachary Crow, director of DecARcerate, was the last panelist of the evening, and he spoke about the teachings of Jesus, whom, according to Crow, was “a brown-skinned rabble-rouser, an undocumented Palestinian, an unhoused prophet, a victim of state-sanctioned murder, incarcerated and later killed by a militarized police force while his mother watched.” He also said the church needs to be better about taking action and to stop the “over-spiritualizing and depoliticization” of the gospel.

After the testimonies, organizers led the crowd in more music, including a song with the lyrics, “freedom is coming.” Arkansas PPC co-chair Solomon Burchfield and organizer Anika Whitfield asked attendees to fill out pledge cards for the campaign with their contact information so they could be called upon to help.

“The pain and the discontent of the people of Arkansas is real,” Burchfield said. “And the demands of our movement are moral. And by the way, we are not asking requests. We are organizing so we can make demands.”