Martin Luther King holding up a poster title Poor People's Campaign 1968

Martin Luther King’s Focus on Socio-Economic Inequality: The Poor People’s Campaign

The Martin Luther King Jr. we don’t remember

History today remembers Martin Luther King Jr. as this benevolent, saint-like figure. He is mostly remembered for his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, in which he shared his dreams of an America no longer stained by racism, segregation, and inequality. King’s evolving politics in the last years of his life, by comparison, aren’t remembered nearly as much. King was highly critical of the American capitalist system. He believed capitalism “has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few, and has encouraged small hearted men to become cold and conscienceless” (King Jr., 2010, p. 197). King was also vehemently opposed to the Vietnam War, expressing in his 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” that it was a moral, political, and economic catastrophe decimating President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty programs (Freeman & Kolozi, 2018, p. 7). Chances are when a quote by King is posted and shared on social media nowadays, it’s not going to be a quote reflecting his views on capitalism or the Vietnam War. If we as Americans truly want to honor King and his legacy, we must recognize him for the daring and radical person he truly was. There’s no better way to do that than to reflect on the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort he organized and led until his assassination on April 4, 1968.

Dilapidated apartment during Martin Luther King's era.

Shift in focus

King became deeply disturbed by the poverty of the United States, especially when he experienced it firsthand (Messman, 2007, p. 30). He moved his family into a housing unit of Chicago’s Lawndale slum between 1965 and 1966 (Messman, 2007, p. 30). Horrified by the conditions its residents were living in, it was during this time period that King desired to broaden the black freedom struggle into a human rights struggle (Pearlman, 2014, p. 25). He confided in actor and activist Harry Belafonte that while he believed fighting for integration was the right thing to do, he was concerned he was integrating his people “into a burning house” (Freeman & Kolozi, 2018, p. 14). There was still deep social, political, and economic inequality in the United States despite the victories gained from the 1963 March on Washington (Pearlman, 2014, p. 27). King quickly realized he needed to shift his focus in the fight for equality towards class (Freeman & Kolozi, 2018, p. 3). He felt that until the issues of poverty and economic inequality were properly dealt with and resolved, anger and violence would continue to be perpetuated in the United States (Freeman & Kolozi, 2018, p. 14). In his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, King wrote, “In short, the Negroes’ problem cannot be solved unless the whole of American society takes a new look toward greater economic justice,”  (King Jr., 2010, p. 51).

Black and white photo of the SCLC leadership conference. People gathered around with banner of SCLC.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)

The idea for the Poor People’s Campaign came about during a five-day retreat held by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in November of 1967, in which Martin Luther King Jr. served as the first president (Pearlman, 2014, p. 26). The SCLC was founded on January 10-11, 1957 during a meeting convened by King, Charles Kenzie Steele, and Fred Shuttlesworth at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia (Fairclough, 1986, p. 423). They sent about 100 invitations to mostly African American ministers from the South, with 60 of them responding back (Fairclough, 1986, p. 423). It was during this meeting that the participants agreed to establish a civil rights organization which would focus on promoting nonviolence and abolishing segregation (Fairclough, 1986, p. 423). The selection of King as president of the organization was a foregone conclusion and not met with any opposition due to his prior work in the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956 (Fairclough, 1986, p. 427). The SCLC is a community mobilizing organization, which strongly believe in public confrontation as the most effective way to bring about powerful change (Miller). The organization is still active to this day and is committed to educating others about personal responsibility, leadership potential, and community service, as well as fighting for social, economic, and political justice through nonviolence (SCLC, n.d.). Charles Steele Jr. currently serves as its president (SCLC, n.d.).

Black and White photo of Poor People's March on Washington

A campaign for the poor

The Poor People’s Campaign was designed by the SCLC, under the leadership of King, to draw attention to American poverty and its diversity, challenge the structural root of poverty, and gain economic justice for the poor (Pearlman, 2014, p. 26). It was intended to resemble a “nonviolent uprising, a multiracial coalition of poor people and their allies who would march to Washington, D.C., set up mass encampments, and then launch protests every day for economic justice” (Messman, 2007, p. 30). The SCLC targeted people of all backgrounds-White, Black, Native American, Mexican- for their support and participation in the campaign (Beagle, 2000, p. 238). Their strategy was to leave the federal government no choice but to enact an Economic Bill of Rights which would guarantee affordable housing for all, a decent income for those unable to work, equal educational opportunities for the poor, a public works program for the inner city, and more (Messman, 2007, p. 30). This would be achieved through mass demonstrations, lobbying, and trainings of poor people in the discipline of nonviolence (Pearlman, 2014, p. 26). It would also be achieved through the setting up of Resurrection City, a mass encampment of poor people in the National Mall (Messman, 2007, p. 31). Resurrection City would force the public to confront poverty and the struggles of poor people (Messman, 2007, p. 31). It’s no coincidence that the major targets of the campaign, the Capitol Building and the White House, were functions of the most powerful government in the world (Messman, 2007, p. 31). King wanted the campaign to disrupt and paralyze prominent government buildings until the federal government took measures to address poverty (Messman, 2007, p. 32).

People on balcony pointing

Shattered dreams

The trajectory of the Poor People’s Campaign drastically altered when King was assassinated just weeks before it was set to launch (Beagle, 1968, p. 239). The leadership structure of the SCLC was dominated by and built around King (Fairclough, 1986, p. 429). According to Baynard Rustin, a civil rights organizer and activist integral to its founding, “the structure of the SCLC was autocratic…. major decisions rested with Dr. King” (Fairclough, 1986, p. 430). The public image and appeal of the SCLC was also framed around his persona (Fairclough, 1986, p. 430). Simply put, there was no Southern Christian Leadership Conference without Martin Luther King Jr. That’s why his death was such a huge blow to the campaign. Ralph Abernathy succeeded him as SCLC president and leader of the Poor People’s Campaign (Freeman & Kolozi, 2018, p. 23). Peter S. Beagle, an author who participated in and covered the campaign, overheard a woman in Resurrection City say, “Dr. King could talk for twenty minutes, and I wouldn’t understand one single word he said, but it didn’t matter. Dr. Abernathy, he talks for two hours, and I understand every word. But I guess I don’t care” (Beagle, 1968, p. 253). King was such a charismatic, once in a lifetime leader whose shoes were impossible to fill.

Washington DC, what looks like a camping area for the Poor People's campaign movement

Nowhere to go but down

The Poor People’s Campaign officially launched on May 12, 1968 in Washington D.C., where Coretta Scott King led a protest demanding an Economic Bill of Rights (Freeman & Kolozi, 2018, p. 23). All appeared well, but things quickly fell apart. The campaign’s leadership was disorganized and unfocused with King out of the picture (Freeman & Kolozi, 2018, p. 23). The SCLC was severely lacking in resources. They could only build shelters for about 700 people in Resurrection City, forcing other participants of the campaign to find other places to live (Pearlman, 2014, p. 34). This housing shortage contributed to Resurrection City being disproportionally Black, not multiracial like it was intended to be (Beagle, 1968, p. 247). The SCLC had to hold a press conference afterwards, asking the city of department heads for more than $3 million in additional funds (Pearlman, 2014, p. 34). There was also a shortage of food for all of the participants (Beagle, 1968, p. 245). They had to seek out and receive meals from local private organizations, church and synagogue groups, and the D.C. Health and Welfare Council (Pearlman, 2014, p. 34).

Worst of all, the SCLC lost control of the campaign’s participants. Many participants started to act out and behave badly as the campaign went on (Pearlman, 1968, p. 34). There were many reports of rapes, robberies, and attacks on tourists and reporters within Resurrection City (Beagle, 1968, p. 249). There was also rampant drug and alcohol consumption among the participants (Beagle, 1968, p. 249). This violent behavior would prove to be the SCLC’s downfall. On June 20, 1968, 300 participants of the Poor People’s Campaign were involved in a scuffle with a police officer nearby Resurrection City (Pearlman, 2014, p. 36). The conflict grew worse when the police officer called for backup, with 150 officers arriving on the scene (Pearlman, 2014, p. 36). The participants began throwing rocks, bottles, and baton sticks at the police officers, who responded back with tear gas (Pearlman, 2014, p. 36). Three days later, a few youths mistaken to be part of the campaign threw rocks at police officers stationed outside Resurrection City. The Department of Justice concluded that the SCLC’s “failure to impose proper sanctions for the June 20 uprising had created a general lack of discipline within the camp” (Pearlman, 2014, p. 36).  National Park Service officials subsequently denied the SCLC a permit extension for Resurrection City (Pearlman, 2014, p. 36). Thus, the Poor People’s Campaign effectively ended on June 24, 1968

Poor People's Campaign Movement

The legacy of the Poor People’s Campaign

The Poor People’s Campaign was ultimately a failure because it was unable to achieve what it set out to. There is no Economic Bill of Rights. Poverty continues to exist, and it’s estimated nearly 41 million Americans are living in poverty right now (Booker, 2018). Worse, the campaign is largely forgotten today, especially in the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life. However, the campaign did achieve some gains. According to children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, it wasn’t a complete failure because it succeeded in making the federal government improve conditions for the poor (Desmond-Harris, 2017). She had a point. The campaign put pressure on Orville Freeman, the Secretary of Agriculture, to make the federal government invest more heavily in food stamps (Beagle, 1968, p. 249). It resulted in the implementation of food distributions in about 250 poverty-stricken counties across the country (Beagle, 1968, p. 249). There was also major investments in nutrition programs and school lunches from the federal government as a result of the campaign (Desmond-Harris, 2017). Another success of the Poor People’s Campaign was the attention it drew to American poverty (Desmond-Harris, 2017). SCLC president and cofounder Joseph Lowery argued it made the country more conscious of its expanding poor population (Desmond-Harris, 2017). In the aftermath of the campaign, the reality of poverty could no longer be denied (Desmond-Harris, 2017).

Lost in the discussion surrounding the failure of the Poor People’s Campaign are how relevant its values and goals still are. It has been revitalized by ministers William Barber II and Liz Theoharis (Booker, 2018). The new campaign, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, is a continuation of King’s legacy and his last organizing effort (Booker, 2018). In addition to poverty, the campaign is also taking on systematic racism, the war economy, and ecological devastation (Booker, 2018). Among the campaign’s list of demands are increases in the federal and state living wages, reinvestment in public housing, and the reallocation of resources from the military budget towards education, health care, jobs, and green infrastructure needs (Booker, 2018). These are some of the very issues the Poor People’s Campaign was taking on over fifty years ago. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” wrote King in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, five years before the Poor People’s Campaign. Economic injustice is indeed a threat to everyone’s justice. The United States is plagued with economic injustice and will continue to be, unless serious action is taken to combat it.

References

Beagle, P. (2000). The Poor People’s Campaign. Creative Nonfiction, (15), 236-259. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/44362945

Booker, B. (2018, May 14). The Poor People’s Campaign Seeks To Complete Martin Luther King’s Final Dream. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/05/14/610836891/the-poor-peoples-campaign-seeks-to-complete-martin-luther-king-s-final-dream

Desmond-Harris, J. (2017, January 16). The Poor People’s Campaign: the little-known protest MLK was planning when he died. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/2017/1/16/14271074/poor-peoples-campaign-mlk-protest

Fairclough, A. (1986). The Preachers and the People: The Origins and Early Years of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1955-1959. The Journal of Southern History, 52(3), 403-440.

Freeman, J., & Kolozi, P. (2018). Martin Luther King, Jr. and America’s Fourth Revolution: The Poor People’s Campaign at Fifty. American Studies Journal, (64), 1–18.

King, M. L., King, C. S., & Harding, V. (2010). Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Boston: Beacon Press.

Messman, T. (2007). The Poor People’s Campaign: Non-Violent Insurrection for Economic Justice. Race, Poverty & the Environment, 14(1), 30-32. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41555132

Miller, M. (n.d.). Alinsky for the Left: The Politics of Community Organizing. Retrieved from https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/alinsky-for-the-left-the-politics-of-community-organizing

Pearlman, L. (2014). More than a March: The Poor People’s Campaign in the District. Washington History, 26(2), 24-41. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23937716

SCLC. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://nationalsclc.org/

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