Changing the Conversation: Igniting a Poor People’s Campaign

By Maurice Isserman

In 2018, we are awash in 50th anniversary commemorations of the events and legacy of 1968: the Tet Offensive, the My Lai massacre, the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns, assassinations, campus occupations, police riots, and much more. One commemoration to which democratic socialists should pay particular attention, in part because their forebears had so much to do with it, may be slighted in the mainstream media: the Poor People’s Campaign launched by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).

The fate of that campaign is relevant to our own time, as a new Poor People’s Campaign, endorsed by DSA, gets underway to bring attention to the persistence of poverty in the United States, as well as related issues such as income inequality, mass incarceration, and voting rights.

Mauldin, 1968

In January 1968, King announced SCLC’s plans for a sustained campaign of mass protest and civil disobedience in Washington, DC, by an interracial coalition of poor people, to pressure the White House and Congress to launch an expanded War on Poverty. At King’s request, socialist Michael Harrington (a long-time adviser), drafted a Poor People’s Manifesto to set forth the goals of the campaign, including federal programs for full employment and low-cost housing.

Part of SCLC’s strategy was to construct an encampment of poor people, known as “Resurrection City,” at the very heart of official Washington, on the National Mall between the Washington and Lincoln Monuments. But King never made it to Washington, slain on April 4 by a white supremacist sniper in Memphis, where he had gone to support a strike of the city’s sanitation workers.

Although King never joined a socialist organization, he sympathized privately with socialist ideals, and sometimes, given the right audience, proclaimed those sympathies. As he declared in a 1965 speech to a group of African American labor activists, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.”

Resurrection City was built in May 1968, and about 3,000 poor people of all races and regions lived there for six weeks. At SCLC’s call, 50,000 people came together in a mass march and rally on June 19 in solidarity with the campaign. Six days after the Solidarity Day rally, most of the residents of Resurrection City were arrested during civil disobedience on the Capitol grounds, and those who remained in the encampment were dispersed by police.

By 1968, the national consensus that something needed to be done for the country’s poor—sparked in part by Harrington’s influential 1962 book The Other America: Poverty in the United States—had eroded. Poor people, especially poor people of color, were increasingly viewed as responsible for their own fate, and undeserving of help from the federal government. But the demands of the original Poor People’s Campaign—for jobs, education, and housing—would have benefited a broad swath of the U.S. population: poor, working class, and middle class, black, brown, and white alike.

Similarly, today the Fight for Fifteen and Medicare for All are not just programs for the poor, but for everyone not in the 1%. That’s a lesson worth learning from the ill-fated War on Poverty of the 1960s. As for the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, a brave if doomed effort overshadowed by King’s death and the other turbulent events of the year, its memory deserves its own resurrection.

Maurice Isserman is professor of history at Hamilton College. Fifty years ago, he was arrested on the Capitol grounds, in the final act of the Poor People’s Campaign. For more information about the current campaign, watch the site and visit

DSA Immigration Rights Rapid Response: #AbolishICE

June 21, 2018

Thursday, June 21st at 8:30pm ET/7:30pm CT/6:30pm MT/5:30pm PT

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The Trump administration’s policy of separating families seeking asylum is only the latest in a escalation of anti-immigrant policies. We need to #AbolishICE now. Join us for an emergency call with the national DSA Immigrant Rights committee and our allies to discuss our strategy.

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New Member Call, June 24

June 24, 2018

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You've joined DSA - Great! Now register for this New Member Orientation call and find out more about our politics and our vision. And, most importantly, how you can become involved.

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**Note: this page originally had the wrong date listed. The Correct date is Sunday the 24th**

M4A Chapter Activist Training Call: How to Pass a Medicare for All City Council Resolution

June 30, 2018

Saturday June 30th at 4pm ET/3pm CT/2pm MT/1pm PST

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In March, Philadelphia DSA members showed up in droves with healthcare workers, community members, and elected leaders to pass a Philadelphia city-wide resolution supporting the Medicare for All Act of 2017 and affirming universal access to healthcare as a human right. This victory showed that in a city where the poverty rate is over 26%, city council leaders learned where to stand when it comes to universal healthcare. To move a national campaign to win Medicare for All, we need to build support from a broad range of cities and municipalities across the country. With some research, planning, and lobbying, you could work with city council members to pass a resolution of support in your city too!

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