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Fighting poverty in 1968 and today

The Poor People's Campaign in Washington, D.C, 1968.
mnhs.org
The Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C, 1968.

A new show at the Minnesota History Center, “The 1968 Exhibit,” unlatches a flood gate of memories: not only bloody Vietnam battles playing out on American televisions, but also massive anti-war protests and shocking political assassinations, the sexual revolution, a gaping racial divide, radical movements for power and inclusion, the Beatles, hippies, thigh-high skirts and the color orange.

Tumultuous, emancipating, changing times are all expertly recalled in displays, video and audio, some told agonizingly in the first person.

“I’m a Vietnam vet,” a skinny, mustached man told me, “and I have nightmares still.”

Much about 1968 I remember all too well, but it took the photos of makeshift shacks cobbled together on the National Mall to recall Resurrection City and The Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., an anti-poverty movement and human rights effort inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King.

Now, in 2011, in the shadows of other wars, Americans are combating homelessness and poverty and racial divides still.
We see need in U.S. Census Bureau numbers showing 15.2 percent of Minnesota kids are poor. We see the racial divide in our cities and neighborhoods reflected in a recent Minneapolis Foundation report. We see people taking action in our community.

Take, for instance, an upcoming event sponsored by 16 downtown Minneapolis faith communities – Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian — that make up Downtown Congregations to End Homelessness.

“Journey to Housing Justice: A Look Inside” spotlights three different organizations working with the homeless and features open house tours at their locations on Nov. 6, Nov. 13 and Nov. 20. Involved are St. Stephen’s Human Services, People Serving People and YouthLink. Details are here

“Hearing stories is important but also seeing what people are actually living through is also a powerful experience,” explains Heidi Johnson McAllister, the group’s congregational organizer.

“To be able to see what living in a shelter is like is really a powerful experience,” she says, recalling her personal observation of a 40-bed, one-room shelter smelling of bleach used as disinfectant.

“It’s just really not dignified,” Johnson McAllister says, stressing increased need with high unemployment rates and home foreclosures.
With awareness of the reality of homelessness, she believes, will come more public advocacy for solutions to homelessness, such as more affordable housing, more outreach to people on the streets and more private and government help.

The group is non-partisan and started three years ago, around the time of the Great Recession.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/24/2011 - 03:01 pm.

    Thank you, Cynthia. There is still so much ignorance complicated by ideology in America today. The poor are still blamed by many for being poor (“they’re lazy and don’t want to work as long as they can get these lavish government benefits”), just as they were in the 19th century when even those modest benefits didn’t exist.

    They are belittled for paying “no taxes” when their incomes are too low to require paying federal income tax — but not too low, of course, to pay social security and medicare withholding taxes, sales tax, taxes on gasoline and the phone bill, auto license plates each year. Those who are undocumented workers pay into SS and Medicare but get nothing back when they turn 65 because they aren’t citizens.

    I guess it’s even their fault that manufacturers sent billions of their jobs to low-wage/no- environmental-controls countries, and that conscienceless lenders convinced them to buy mortgages beyond their ability to pay.

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