Last year (2014) Portia Gibbs died waiting for a helicopter to transport her to the nearest hospital. Earlier in the year Vidant Health Care had closed a nearby emergency room in Belhaven, NC that would have treated Portia and probably saved her life. The closing of this hospital put the lives of thousands of people in the area at risk. The local Republican mayor of Belhaven, Adam O’Neal, who describes himself as conservative, refused to let them get away with it. In the Summer of 2014 Mayor O’Neal marched 273 miles from Belhaven to Washington, D.C., accompanied most of the way by Civil Rights veteran and Moral Mondays leader Bob Zellner, to call Vidant Health to account. This year Mayor O’Neal plans to march again, but this time he hopes to be joined by people from every state in the nation: it is estimated that across the country, 283 rural hospitals will close in the coming years if something isn’t done to keep them open. Read Kairos Co-Director Larry’s Cox’s article on last year’s walk here.

They’ve managed to prevent the hospital in Belhaven from being demolished, and are on their way to getting it re-opened, but the national health crisis, and in particular the crisis in rural areas, is growing more and more threatening. Through this walk, we’re seeking to bring attention to this pressing problem and bring together the diverse communities directly affected by it.

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The Walk NC to DC
Mayor O'Neal holds up a picture of Portia Gibbs at a rally in D.C. at the end of the walk.

Mayor O’Neal marches for Portia and for the thousands of others across the nation who will die as a result of closing hospitals, but he also marches for the fundamental principle that all humans deserve to be treated with basic dignity. Indeed, the closing of hospitals is only one of many ways that people across the US are catching hell. In Detroit and Baltimore there are tens of thousands of homes whose water is being shut off. From Michael Brown to Freddie Gray to Aiyana Stanley-Jones and countless others we see the persistent and violent dehumanization of black lives. Along the Gulf Coast and in the mountains of West Virginia thousands of people are dying slow deaths from poisoned water and other forms of environmental degradation. The nation’s youth are burdened with over a trillion dollars in student loan debt and a lack of good paying secure jobs. Public schools are being increasingly underfunded while prisons overflow. And the list goes on. While the specific form of these problems and the fights that are being waged against them may differ from Belhaven to Baltimore, or from Detroit to West Virginia, there is a common injustice that unites these fights and a common root-cause that must be confronted.

In 1967, in order to get at the root of the problem Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. turned his energy and resources toward building the Poor People’s Campaign. After the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, King saw that more fundamental change was needed. He believed that the very “edifice that produces beggars” had to be restructured. King knew that as long as the poor were divided such change could not happen. The Poor People’s Campaign sought to unite the nation’s – and eventually the world’s – poor and dispossessed into a “new and unsettling force” that would have the power to wake up and move us all toward a more just and loving human society. The poverty producing “edifice” that King spoke of in 1967 still persists today and in many ways has only grown stronger and more destructive to the human spirit.

To march with Mayor O’Neal is to march for Portia Gibbs and for the thousands of lives that could be lost in rural communities when their hospitals are closed. It is also a march on behalf of all of us whose lives are devalued and degraded by a dehumanizing edifice that creates and sustains poverty. It is a call to rouse all of our spirits and to renew the Poor People’s Campaign for our times.

To learn more about The Walk and see how you can join or support it, go to www.thewalknctodc.com