In Celebration of the Life and Contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is an outgrowth of Rev. William J. Barber II’s “Forward Together, Not One Step Back”/ Moral Monday campaigns that confronted the conservative North Carolina legislature during 2013- 2016 and became a model for similar campaigns in several other states. The new Poor People’s campaign was organized nationally in 2017. The campaign website provides a good description of the progressive principles on which it is based. The following history of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign is from their website – edited for length. – Editor
Dr. King’s Vision: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1967-68
Why a Poor People’s Campaign?
Just a year before his assassination, at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat in May 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.
Later that year, in December 1967, Rev. Dr. King announced the plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington. This march was to demand better jobs, better homes, better education—better lives than the ones they were living. Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 was to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.” Rev. Dr. King proposed;
If you are, let’s say, from rural Mississippi, and have never had medical attention, and your children are undernourished and unhealthy, you can take those little children into the Washington hospitals and stay with them there until the medical workers cope with their needs, and in showing it your children you will have shown this country a sight that will make it stop in its busy tracks and think hard about what it has done.
King aligned with the struggle of the poor and black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee in March and April 1968. He suggested their struggle for dignity was a dramatization of the issues taken up by the Poor People’s Campaign—a fight by capable, hard workers against dehumanization, discrimination and poverty wages in the richest country in the world.
Dr. King saw that poverty was not just another issue and that poor people were not a special interest group. Throughout his many speeches in the last year of his life, he described the unjust economic conditions facing millions of people worldwide. He held up the potential of the poor to come together to transform the whole of society. He knew that for the load of poverty to be lifted, the thinking and behavior of a critical mass of the American people would have to be changed. To accomplish this change of consciousness a “new and unsettling force” had to be formed. In other words, the poor would have to organize to take action together around our immediate and basic needs. He described this force as a multi-racial “nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.”
We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses… We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty.
We read one day: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists … We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.
The first gathering of over fifty multiracial organizations that came together with SCLC to join the Poor People’s Campaign took place in Atlanta, Georgia in March 1968. Key leaders and organizations at this session included: Tom Hayden of the Newark Community Union, Reis Tijerina of the Federal Alliance of New Mexico, John Lewis of the Southern Regional Council, Myles Horton of the Highlander Center, Appalachian volunteers from Kentucky, welfare rights activists, California farm workers, and organized tenants.
The Platform for the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968
As a first step in building the power needed to achieve the goal of a radical redistribution of political and economic power, King, along with other leaders of the poor such as Johnnie Tillmon of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), helped work out the major elements of the platform for the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. An important aspect of the Campaign was to petition the government to pass an Economic Bill of Rights as a step to lift the load of poverty, including:
- $30 billion annual appropriation for a real war on poverty
- Congressional passage of full employment and guaranteed income legislation [a guaranteed annual wage]
- Construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year until slums were eliminated
The Campaign was organized into three phases. The first was to construct a shantytown, to become known as Resurrection City, on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.
The next phase was to begin public demonstrations, mass nonviolent civil disobedience, and mass arrests to protest the plight of poverty in this country. The third and final phase of the Campaign was to launch a nationwide boycott of major industries and shopping areas to prompt business leaders to pressure Congress into meeting the demands of the Campaign.
Although Rev. Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, on April 29, 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign went forward. The efforts of the Poor People’s Campaign climaxed in the Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom on June 19, 1968. Fifty thousand people joined the 3,000 participants living at Resurrection City to rally around the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign on Solidarity Day. This was the first and only massive mobilization to take place during the Poor People’s Campaign.
The Legacy of MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign
Unfortunately, the unity and organization needed for the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 to complete all three of the planned stages and form the “new and unsettling force” capable of disrupting “complacent national life” and achieving an economic bill of rights was not easy to come by. The assassinations of Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy, a key proponent of the Campaign and presidential candidate, only served to cripple the Campaign and greatly limit its impact.
The New Poor People’s Campaign of 2018.
Today a wide diversity of groups are organizing a new Poor People’s Campaign to renew the demand for a just society with a national demonstration and nonviolent actions in over 20 state capitals, scheduled for May 2018.
In recognition of Martin Luther King Jr.’s contribution to our society, we share the above description of the Poor People’s campaign of 1968 and the link to the plans for 2018.
We propose to stand on the shoulders of those who came before and put effort into learning lessons and getting into step together.
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