Put People First
by Gwen Horner
Today started early, up at 6:15 a.m. Our host is The First Presbyterian Church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It is January 21, 2013, a day this nation has set aside to honor Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As an African American I am extremely proud on this day. Today is also the second inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama, the first African American president. This event is taking place one hundred and fifty years after the signing of the emancipation proclamation.
After breakfast we had textual reflection on John Brown’s final speech, a MLK quote from a speech to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist and Luke 4. I went on a food run and missed the entire conversation. The afternoon session was hosted by Put People First Pennsylvania. The meeting was attended by a broad spectrum of community organizers and leaders. After the welcome and prayer an interactive stand up/sit down segment was held. A series of questions was posed to the audience about basic human needs. We were asked if we had ever experienced or knew someone that experienced the lack of food, employment, housing or health insurance. For each question more than half the people in the room stood up. This response shined a spotlight on the need to organize for social transformation to eradicate the economic imbalances that create the lack of basic needs. This introduction set the stage for the Poverty Initiative to provide some contextual analysis on MLK and the movement for human rights. At the time of Dr. King’s assassination he was speaking on behalf of the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee. This was part of the work he was doing with the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign was a1968 effort to gain economic justice for poor people in this county. In 1968, 25 million people were living in poverty; today that number has increased to almost 148 million people. After his death this Campaign became a dream unfulfilled. The Poverty Initiative believes that poverty is the defining issue of our day. They have taken up the mantle and is dedicated to carrying forward Dr. King’s legacy; especially the work of the Poor People’s Campaign. Based on their experience through working with other community organizers a list of first steps was quantified. The steps should include listening, organizing, developing strategies against structures that create poverty and consulting the poor. The floor was opened to audience for feedback and reflections on the struggles of the poor in our communities. The overall consensus was that poverty is increasing in this country and the current structures and systems are not going to alleviate the problem. The solutions have to come from the poor uniting across racial, ethic and cultural lines to help them selves.
The meeting then moved on to the introduction of other community organizations and their leaders. They each had the opportunity to share a brief narrative. I was move by Nijimie Dzumako who said, “I feel a new and unsettling force in the room.” The energy of the groups in the room that are attempting to organize statewide was powerful. It is now our task to carry on what MLK began. Our journey is not complete until systemic and structural economic injustices are dismantled. All the poor and disposed are challenged to be a part of this movement.