Early that morning, Jones began leading more than 100 others in departing from Georgetown for the trip's first leg. As co-chair of the Texas chapter of the nonprofit Poor People’s Campaign, Jones hopes the effort will turn heads in Congress and hearts and minds in the community.
“There’s no more sitting on the sidelines. You’re either going to put up or shut up,” Jones said.
“To make a diamond,” she continued, “you got to put pressure to it.”
The march will continue through Saturday, when a pro-democracy rally will be held at the state’s Capitol.
On top of ending the filibuster, the group is calling on Congress to safeguard voting rights, enact a $15 federal minimum wage and provide permanent protections for immigrants. Supporters are heading to Austin at the same time Democratic state lawmakers are in Washington in an effort to block a GOP-backed elections bill.
The four-day journey mirrors the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, during which Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders protested against the South's racist voting policies. Met by violence from authorities and counter-protesters, the effort ultimately pushed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, guaranteeing Black Americans the right to vote.
But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the law, so the Poor People’s Campaign is calling for its complete restoration. They also demand the full passage of the For the People Act, which would expand voting rights and end partisan gerrymandering, among other provisions.
At a press conference Tuesday, the Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, noted the “poetic irony” that the first select committee hearing of the U.S. Capitol insurrection had also taken place that day. On Jan. 6, supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed Congress in an effort to prevent his successor from taking office.
“If our demands aren’t met, then we keep marching." – Denita Jones, Texas Poor People's Campaign co-chair
Since then, Republicans nationwide — including in Texas — have worked to stage a “political insurrection” by passing legislation making it harder to vote, Barber said. The nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice recently found that so far this year, at least 18 states have enacted laws restricting voting access.
Undermining the nation’s democracy could have “cosmic and international implications,” Barber said.
“We’re not here for fun or for fancy, but we’re here because we’re in a moral fight,” he said. “Not only for the soul of America, but in many ways, possibly, the cause of the world.”
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s group, Powered by People, is partnering with the march. During Tuesday’s press conference, the Democrat told supporters that Texas is “bar none” the hardest state in the nation in which to vote. Yet GOP state leadership has introduced legislation that would make it even harder, he said.
Still, Texas has produced “brave” Democratic state legislators who have left their families, homes and posts to fight for voting rights in Washington, O’Rourke said. On top of that, they face arrest whenever they return.
It may spell bad news for those lawmakers, but their efforts support the greater good, he said.
“In this great democracy, there are no sidelines, there are no grandstands. There’s no playing witness to what’s happening right now,” O’Rourke said. “You are in this fight, or all of us will be out of it.”
Voting rights are making headlines these days, but to Denita Jones, all of the group’s goals are connected. The same people who are suppressing voters are also blocking the minimum wage and Medicaid expansion, she said.
The Poor People’s Campaign will continue to organize across all lines because their demands cover all demographics, Jones said. That diversity is evidenced by the people who joined them in the march: young kids, the elderly, clergy from all walks of faith and Texans with disabilities.
Jones believes that the more people realize they have in common with one another, the stronger their voices will be. It's unknown whether they'll achieve their goals, but it all starts by putting one foot in front of the other. “If our demands aren’t met, then we keep marching,” Jones said. “But what we did was we shined a light on Texas.”