SCLC renews poverty campaign before small crowd

Published 2:15 am Tuesday, June 23, 2009

With a wet towel draped across his head and a garbage bag of aluminum cans in his left hand, Jamot Poe watched members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference march Saturday on a sweltering spring day.

Poe, 32, was not among the fewer than 1,000 marchers in the roughly 1-mile trek to the steps of the Mississippi State Capitol through a tough Jackson neighborhood.

He was just a former drug addict without a home, Poe said, and out collecting cans for money. He paused for a few minutes to watch the SCLC marchers as they passed by, renewing a poverty campaign initiated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. more than 40 years ago.

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“I think they’re speaking up for people like myself,” Poe said. “I don’t live on the street because I stay at the (homeless) shelter every night. I don’t have to get out here and beg or steal from anybody. But it means a lot that they are doing this for the homeless and for the poor people in the community.”

The SCLC, co-founded by King in 1957, had hoped to mobilize 50,000 people Saturday and though far fewer showed up, Interim SCLC President Rev. Byron Clay vowed to take the campaign to Washington and challenge Congress to help the poor.

The event was first envisioned by King, who was planning a Poor People’s Campaign and march on Washington before he was assassinated in 1968. That march originated in Marks, Miss., but King was killed before its completion. Clay said Mississippi leads the nation in poverty and that’s why the campaign was being renewed in Jackson.

“If it’s a thousand people. If it’s 5,000. If it’s 10,000. God has appointed them to be here,” Clay said. “But also understand that this is a progressive process … It will not start and stop here in Jackson.”

In October, Clay said the SCLC will travel to Washington to demand Congressional hearings on poverty. “And at that time, we will call the masses from all over this country to come to Washington and to stand united,” he said.

“It is not about Jackson. It is not about Mississippi,” Clay said. “It’s about people all over this country who are living in poverty, who are hurting, who are suffering, who are without jobs, who are losing their homes, who are losing their cars and losing hope.”

Clay, who took over the SCLC in February, said he felt that King’s mission was unfinished and he has made it a priority to carry it out. The campaign is needed because some people are in denial about the seriousness of poverty in America, Clay said.

Among those who attended the march and rally was James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first black student enrolled at the University of Mississippi, and Amelia Boynton Robinson, 97, of Tuscaloosa, Ala. Robinson was among the marchers tear gassed and beaten by Alabama State Troopers during the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.

Although her health has not allowed her to be as active in the SCLC as in the past, Robinson said she felt the need to travel to Jackson for the renewal of the Poor People’s Campaign.

However, Robinson lamented the fact that so few young people were out for the march when they are often the ones most affected by drugs and homelessness.

“I am wondering what is happening to our young people. I cry when I see meetings like this that we don’t have them,” Robinson said. “I want to say this. We’re not dead. We want these young people to come to us and let us know that they need help.”