SCLC mobilizing for anti-poverty march in Miss.

Published 2:39 pm Friday, June 5, 2009

Interim Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Rev. Byron Clay says he has been traveling around the country, trying to mobilize marchers for his group’s renewed “Poor People’s Campaign.”

“We’re planning to organize everybody we can,” Clay said. “Whether it’s 10,000, whether it’s 50,000, whether it’s 100,000.”

Clay was in Jackson on Wednesday to announce details about the campaign, which is similar to the initiative Dr. Martin Luther King was working on before he was killed in 1968. The renewed push comes as the nation grapples with a national recession, and Congress steers billions in federal dollars to corporate bailouts. Clay said America’s poor have been left to fend for themselves.

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“The working families in this nation are in deep trouble,” Clay said.

The June 20 demonstration will be held at the Mississippi Capitol. Poverty hearings will follow Aug. 1-5 at the SCLC’s national convention in Memphis, Tenn.

Initially, the SCLC wanted to take its march to Washington, D.C.

“We had pretty much concluded that’s where we were going to go,” Clay said. “And one morning the Lord spoke to me and said ’Take this march to Jackson, Miss.”’

He said Mississippi leads the nation in “terms of suffering and poverty. We thought we would bring the nation here so they can witness firsthand.”

But the SCLC will be more than 100 miles away from pockets of the Mississippi Delta with some of the highest illiteracy, teen pregnancy and disease rates in the nation. Surrounded by fertile flatlands, the area was once a sea of cotton plantations, where blacks often worked as sharecroppers for white landowners. Many of its residents still live in ramshackle homes and some towns have streets that haven’t been paved for decades.

The Delta is also where much of Mississippi’s civil rights activism occurred and home to many members of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which challenged the seating of an all-white delegation at the National Democratic Convention in 1964.

Now, unemployment rates in several of the region’s counties are often in the double-digits. And although the Delta is predominantly black, Clay said the SCLC’s campaign isn’t about race.

“This isn’t a black people’s march. This is a poor people’s march,” he said. “Unemployment can never cancel out unemployment. It takes jobs to do that. Poverty can never cancel out poverty. It takes equality to do that.”

Mississippi’s working low-income families rate is 39.4 percent. Only New Mexico and Arkansas have higher rates, said Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, citing 2007 census statistics.

A low-income working household has at least one child under 18, and earns below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold. A family of four that earns below $41,902 is considered low-income, Sivak said.

Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said he was unaware of the campaign, but he’s glad national leaders will be challenged to address the issue.

“Mississippi has one of the highest percentage of the working poor,” Johnson said. “It is unfortunate in this state that (some) state employees and some school district employees work everyday and still qualify for food stamps.”