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A campaign for the impoverished first brought to life by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is being re-launched in Arkansas, and across the nation, for the next six weeks.

A year before he was murdered in Memphis, King told attendees of a Southern Christian Leadership Conference, "We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights."

"In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society," King said, according to a transcript quoted by the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice.

These ideas shaped King's 1968 Poor People's Campaign: an ambitious, galvanizing project to eradicate poverty across racial lines. Its advocates had demands, including billions in funding to wage a war on poverty, for Congress to pass full-employment and guaranteed-income legislation, and the construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units to wipe out slums.

Weeks before a major march was planned, King was assassinated. In the aftermath, the campaign never caught on like faith, civil- and human-rights leaders had hoped.

Now, 50 years later, thousands of people in more than 30 states are planning to join in the revitalized campaign. It's called the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and the national campaign began on Sunday. Expanding Medicaid coverage, ending mass incarceration, restoring the Voting Rights Act and reinvesting in public housing are just four demands from a long list on the national campaign's website.

For the kickoff in Arkansas, a rally is planned for 2 p.m. today at the state Capitol in Little Rock.

"[What] a lot of people don't realize is what Dr. King was saying then is the same thing we're saying now," said Toney Orr, head organizer for United Labor Unions Local 100 and an activist with the Arkansas chapter of the Poor People's Campaign.

"You have to understand that as he traveled, not only did he try to uplift people and inspire people, he saw the conditions they lived in," said Orr, who grew up in Chicago and was in elementary school when King was murdered.

Now, in 2018, the focus is no longer on cotton fields or sharecropping, Orr said. Rather, it's about "this deliberate, systematic war to strip poor people" of any protections.

According to the most recently available U.S. Census Bureau figures, released in 2017, Arkansas is the 44th-poorest state in the nation, with a poverty rate of 17.2 percent. The state's median household income is 49th.

Arkansas' minimum wage, $8.50 an hour, is a major issue, Orr said. Another is the state's recent decision to impose work requirements on certain Medicaid beneficiaries, as well as the high cost of health care in general, he said.

But it would be wrong to say demonstrators take issue with just one or two policies in particular, said the Rev. Dr. Anika Whitfield, one of the Arkansas campaign organizers.

"We don't want to be pigeonholed into suggesting there are one or two things wrong with this state," she said.

Instead, the group opposes all city, county, state and federal rules that promote systemic poverty, systemic racism, the war economy, ecological devastation and the "false narratives that divide us," Whitfield said.

Forty days of demonstrations are planned, both in Arkansas and nationally, culminating with a rally in Washington, D.C., on June 23.

Arkansas-based events include teach-ins, or lectures and discussions, documentary screenings and "nonviolent moral direct action," according to the group. That could include rallies, sit-ins, stopping traffic or taking over a city block -- basically all things that draw attention to the cause, Orr said. Events are posted on the group's Facebook page.

Today, at the state Capitol, the voices of people who aren't normally heard will be elevated, Whitfield said.

And as always, Orr said, there's strength in numbers.

"Nobody wants to hear one voice. But they will listen to a thousand voices."

Metro on 05/14/2018

Print Headline: State events to mark revival of King's anti-poverty campaign

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