The Poor People’s Campaign: the little-known protest MLK was planning when he died

Ask any American over the age of seven what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood for, and chances are you’ll hear something about how the color of your skin shouldn’t determine the way you’re treated. That’s a fair answer, and it does represent one element of the iconic civil rights leader’s vision. But it’s odd that, when we talk about King, we’re so much less likely to conjure up the belief that arguably dominated his entire worldview, and especially characterized his final months: that people shouldn’t have to live in poverty, and that every single American is entitled to a solid income and a decent place to live. After all, in December 1967, just four months before he was assassinated, King announced to the press that the Poor People’s Campaign was coming to Washington, DC, that April. The goal: to demand that President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress take action to help poor people get employment, health care, and decent housing. The tactic: marching through the US Capitol and demonstrating at federal agencies to convince Congress to pass major anti-poverty legislation. The unique approach: the participants would physically stay there, living on the National Mall in an encampment dubbed Resurrection City, until they saw results. “King’s plan was to bring this fight right to the steps of the federal agencies that had power and weren’t doing what they should be doing to remedy the problem of poverty, and in fact were propping up exploitative systems,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at Ohio State University and the author of Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama’s Black Belt. After King’s death on April 4, 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) decided to move forward with the campaign, with the organization’s new president, Ralph Abernathy, taking the lead in his place. So, while, King wasn’t present, it was largely his vision that was carried out. That’s why the Poor People’s Campaign, the final protest the famous civil rights leader spearheaded, should be as important as anything that happened while he was alive when it comes to thinking about his legacy. Here’s what it was all about. 1) It was more than just a march — it was like the original Occupy The Poor People’s Campaign had a whole host of components — some of which, like a letter-writing initiative and local demonstrations, let people participate from their home states. But the core of the plan was for participants to march on the nation’s capital and camp there while making nonstop demands for economic justice. They pulled it off. Fifty thousand people showed up in Washington, DC, and participated in the initial protests, and between 5,000 and 7,000 remained in Resurrection City, an encampment on the National Mall (the strip of land connecting the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial) that was the staging area for daily demonstrations at federal agencies and the US Capitol for over a month. “They weren’t going to just do a march or a one-day demonstration — this was Occupy before Occupy,” said Jeffries, referring to Occupy Wall Street, the protest movement that began in 2011 in New York City’s financial district and inspired months-long demonstrations across the country, with participants rallying against social end economic inequality. The US Postal Service even gave the “city” its own zip code: 20013 Living conditions were rough. There was raining and the flooding, and at times, morale among the protesters was low. But, “despite it all, they were still engaging in this effort. They weren’t just sitting here in the rain and the mud saying ‘this is kinda bad,” said Jeffries. “Every day, they were leading demonstrations at, say, the Department of Agriculture.” 2) It wasn’t just a movement for poor people, it was by poor people ( It’s one thing for activists to demand economic justice, and it’s another thing altogether to bring economically marginalized people themselves to the nation’s capital to make their plight known. The Poor People’s Campaign did the latter. “It wasn’t ‘everybody who supports fighting poverty, come on down to DC.’ This was different. [The idea] was, ‘We are going to bring the people most affected by poverty to the nation’s capital,” Jeffries said, noting the lack of resources of the participants made logistics a major task. “The people from Mississippi left months before the start date, following a literal mule train, carrying everything they owned in their wagons,” he said. The SCLC had help spreading the word from the Peace Corps, Volunteers in Service to America, and the YMCA. The result was a group of people that was predominantly African-American, but included enough diversity that it represented the face of poverty in America. A brochure publicizing the campaign read, “We will be young and old, jobless fathers, welfare mothers, farmers and laborers. We are Negroes, American Indians, Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, poor white people.” There wasn’t an income cap, though: the document’s response to the question, “Do you have to be poor to be in this campaign?” was “No. Most persons at the start of the Campaign in Washington will be poor, but other people from all walks of life must he prepared to take their place in the lines of this campaign.” 3) It represented a significant change in tactics The march represented a new phase of the civil rights movement — a switch from a focus on dismantling the legal barriers to equality, to eliminating something that needed no law or statute to keep people oppressed: poverty. At the time of the Poor People’s Campaign, a lot of legally backed racism — think segregation and restrictive voting laws that targeted African Americans — ad already been struck down, but it was clear there was a very different kind of work that still needed to be done. “For King and many others, there’s a very depressing realization in 1965 that what they thought would represent victory turns out not really to represent anywhere near the degree of fundamental change that they previously had imagined it would,” David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said in an interview with American Radio Works. According to Stanford University’s Martin Luther King Research and Education Institute, King believed that African Americans and other minorities would never truly achieve full citizenship until they had economic security. At a planning meeting for the campaign, he reportedly told delegates that it would be ‘‘the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” 4) It revealed King’s lifelong obsession The SCLC brochure advertising the campaign said it would call for a “decent life for all poor people so that they will control their own destiny,” and made no attempt to minimize the expense, saying, “This will cost billions of dollars, but the richest nation of all time can afford to spend this money if America is to avoid social disaster.” Specifically, they demanded an “Economic Bill of Rights” with the following components: People were to have a meaningful job with a livable wage. People were to get a secure and efficient income. People were to be able to access land for economic reasons. Less well-off people were to have access to capital to promote business. The middle class were to have a large role in government. It was bold. And, according to Jeffries, it was exactly in line with how King had always seen the world, and his longstanding fixation on the radical redistribution of economic power. King had grown up during the Great Depression and escaped most of its harshest consequences because of his well-off family’s relative privilege, but “all he had to do was sit on his front porch and he could see the ravages,” said Jeffries. As a result, “Questions of economic justice were always on his mind. He wrote about it, he talked about it, he preached about it.” Even King’s very last act before he was assassinated — a trip to Memphis to support the sanitation workers’ strike there — was fueled by this belief. “This idea of black workers living in poverty even though they had employment, he saw as directly connected to the Poor People’s Campaign,” said Jeffries, explaining that King’s attitude, despite the many demands on his time, was, “How can I turn my back on them when the thing they’re struggling for in Memphis is the same thing we’re trying to do in DC?” The thing that distinguished the Poor People’s Campaign from some of the undertakings for which King is better known (like the busy boycotts in Selma or marches to demand voting rights), was that it was less a reaction to a particular injustice, according to Jeffries. Instead, it was a proactive initiative to demand the conditions that would support large-scale justice. But it was fueled by the very same beliefs about poverty that had always motivated him. “With the Poor People’s Campaign, he’s not transitioning to something new,” said Jeffries. “If anything, he has found the dime to do something old.” 5) King and Bayard Rustin disagreed about the approach Before his death, King reportedly bumped heads with one of his key strategists, Bayard Rustin, about the best tactics for making the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign. Rustin thought civil disobedience was a bad idea for addressing poverty, especially in a sensitive political climate or pre-election year. But, according to Swarthmore College’s global nonviolent action database, King overruled Rustin’s objections. His thinking was that anything it took to raise public awareness about the need for economic justice for the poor would be a good strategy. In fact, King predicted that the SCLC would have to raise nonviolence to a new level. He used the moral urgency of the crisis facing the poor to emphasize how urgent this would be, saying at a press conference about the Poor People’s Campaign, “America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important for us as a nation and a society to choose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage … In this age of technological wizardry and political immorality, the poor are demanding that the basic needs of people be met as the first priority of our domestic program.” 6) There’s no consensus about whether it was a success Perhaps part of the reason we don’t talk as much about the Poor People’s Campaign when commemorating King’s life is that there’s no real consensus about whether it was a success. The demonstrations fizzled out when the encampment’s permit expired on June 24, 1968, shortly after a confrontation between police and some of the inhabitants of Resurrection City led to a tear gas attack on the remaining people there. Some refused to leave, and a total of 288 protesters were jailed — making July 13 the anticlimactic official end of the campaign. In a 2014 reflection on the effort, NPR dubbed it “a dream unfulfilled,” noting that many participants deemed it a failure because they didn’t see immediate changes. And there’s no question that the demands were never met, and that Americans continue to live in poverty. The other view is that of SCLC co-founder Rev. Joseph Lowery, who said that as a result of the effort, “the nation became conscious of the fact that it has an expanding poor population.” As a historian assessing the campaign, Jeffries said he chooses to defer to organizer Marian Wright Edelman, who saw it as a success. “She has said the campaign itself and the pressure that was bought to bear on the federal government resulted in major federal investment and, at minimum, nationwide nutrition programs. Food stamps. School lunches. Did it end poverty? Obviously not. Was it ever going to? No. But did it succeed in bringing attention to poverty in American and did it result in some federal intervention to alleviate the terrible conditions that so many were facing in America? Yes, it did.”


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