MLK Day Activity: Organizing to End Poverty, Then and Now

January 13, 2014

This lesson focuses on a less well-known part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, but one that is extremely relevant today: the Poor People’s Campaign that Dr. King led over 40 years ago. The lesson links this campaign to current struggles to combat poverty in the US, including efforts by workers at fast food restaurants, Wal-Mart, and others to substantially increase their wages and those of millions of other Americans by raising the federal minimum wage.

To the teacher:  
This lesson focuses on a less well-known part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, but one that is extremely relevant today: the Poor People's Campaign that Dr. King led over 40 years ago. The lesson links this campaign to current struggles to combat poverty in the US, including efforts by workers at fast food restaurants, Wal-Mart, and others to substantially increase their wages and those of millions of other Americans by raising the federal minimum wage.
Poverty has been in the news lately, with President Obama urging Congress to restore unemployment benefits and the 50-year anniversary of the Johnson administration's "War on Poverty." Johnson and his allies, spurred by civil rights and other organizers, pushed initiatives ranging from Head Start and the Job Corps to Medicare and food stamps. In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson said his aim was "not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it."
Unfortunately, we are still combating poverty today, 50 years later. Evidence suggests that four out of five American adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives.  And so, a struggle that Dr. King helped lead continues today.


Read the following quote out loud:

"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."

Ask students if they know who might have said this and have them explain why.  After taking some student responses, reveal that these words were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King over 40 years ago. 
Ask student how this quote relates to our situation today: How relevant is King's call today? 
What do we know about poverty in the U.S. now?
Summarize what students share and provide them with some information about current poverty in the US today using these quotes:
"Contrary to popular belief, the percentage of the population that directly encounters poverty [today] is exceedingly high. ...Poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans. For most of us, the question is not whether we will experience poverty, but when." 
"Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.  Survey data exclusive to the Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend."

Tell students that in today's lesson, we'll learn about growing popular movements to fight poverty in America - and about the anti-poverty movement that Dr. King helped lead decades ago.


In the Spirit of Dr. King 

Before we begin our exploration, let's take pause and note that every third Monday in January is Martin Luther King Day.  Ask students what they know about the man being honored this day. 
Elicit and explain that Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister and civil rights activist, was one of the most influential leaders of his time.  He is probably best known for his role in mobilizing large groups of people to advance racial desegregation and equal rights for all using nonviolent civil disobedience. 
What fewer people are aware of is that Dr. King spent the last months of his life organizing to address the problem of poverty.  When he was killed on April 4, 1968, he was in Memphis, Tennessee. He was in that city to promote fair wages and union representation for Memphis sanitation workers and to mobilize a national movement to fight poverty.  The Poor People's Campaign, which he organized with other civil rights leaders in early 1968, was to be a peaceful gathering of poor people from communities across the nation.  They planned to march through Washington in the hopes of getting Congress to pass substantial anti-poverty legislation.
Dr. King predicted that poverty would be much more difficult to address than earlier civil rights campaigns.  
Ask students: Why do you think Dr. King thought this? Do you think he was right? Why or why not?



The Struggle Against Poverty Then and Now

Ask students to read  Handout #1.  As they read about Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign, instruct them to look for and underline information about:

  • why Dr. King started the Poor People's Campaign
  • his methods
  • who was involved
  • the challenges

Have students watch this compelling 9-minute clip from PBS NewsHour. It follows fast food worker Shenita Simon, who is trying to support her family in Brooklyn, NY, with her $8 an hour job. Simon is also active in the movement to raise wages of fast food workers. Also see the New York Times story on low wage worker organizing that includes Simon.

Finally, ask students to read Handout #2.  As they read about today's struggle to raise wages and fight poverty, instruct them to look for and underline information about:

  • why low-wage workers are protesting
  • their methods
  • who is involved
  • the challenges

T-Chart Compare and Contrast

Split your class into groups of four or five students.  Provide each with a sheet of flip chart paper and two different color markers.  

Instruct students to draw a T-chart on the paper, with the first column called The Poor People's Campaign and the second column, Combating Poverty Today.  Then, based on what they underlined in the handouts, ask them to first chart the similarities between the approaches in the two readings.  Encourage them to come up with as many similarities as possible.  When they're done, tell them to create a second row in the chart for recording the differences between the two approaches, using a different color of marker.  Again encourage students to come up with as many differences as possible. 

Gallery Walk

Ask students to put their flipcharts up around the room.  Then, ask students to walk around the room in silence, reading what is in the flipcharts of their peers.  After a few minutes ask them to return to their seats and discuss:

  1. What did you notice about what the different groups put on their charts?

  2. How are the campaigns back then and today similar?

  3. How are they different?

  4. Can you think of things today's movement might learn or borrow from King's Poor People's Campaign?



Have students turn to a partner to share one thing they learned today.    Ask a few volunteers to share. 

Ask students to reflect on the following:  "The opposite of poverty is not wealth but justice."

Handout# 1:

The Poor People's Campaign of the 1960s

Adapted from a segment from American Radio Works  
In 1967, King spoke frequently about a "new phase" of the civil rights movement. It would focus on economic justice for poor people. While the civil rights movement had won the desegregation of public accommodations and broad new voting rights for black citizens, King said these victories had done little to vanquish one central problem: poverty.
So long as black people remained poor, they would never really be free, King declared. He felt it was his job to steer the movement in a new direction.
King predicted that attacking poverty would be much more difficult than earlier civil rights campaigns.  "We aren't merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now," he said. "We're struggling to get some money to be able to buy a hamburger or a steak when we get to the counter."
What was ultimately needed, King said, was "a radical redistribution of economic and political power.  King's right-wing critics had long been calling him a communist. King knew his demand for the redistribution of wealth would draw their fire.
The idea for The Poor People's Campaign came from a young civil rights lawyer who worked with poor people in Mississippi, Marian Wright Edelman. Edelman had recently taken New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy to Mississippi to meet some of the nation's poorest citizens face to face. Kennedy told Edelman she ought to bring poor people to Washington to push for action to address poverty. When Edelman told this to King, he loved the idea.

On December 4, 1967, King announced the Poor People's Campaign to the press.  He said:

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation's poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all. We will go there, we will demand to be heard and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it, for that is what America's poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination. ... In short, we will be petitioning our government for specific reforms and we intend to build militant, nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty. ...

Excerpted from CNN's In America

The Poor People's Campaign reached out to poor whites, many of whom felt most threatened by the civil rights movement's successes in black equality, as well as impoverished migrant farm workers who harvested the nation's food and Native Americans who languished on reservations. Injustice anywhere, King said, was a threat to justice everywhere.
In a speech in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, less than a month before his assassination, King said: 

"The problem of unemployment is not the only problem.  There is a problem of underemployment, and there are thousands and thousands, I would say millions of people in the Negro community who are poverty-stricken - not because they are not working, but because they receive wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the main stream of the economic life of our nation. Most of the poverty-stricken people of America are persons who are working every day, and they end up getting part-time wages for full-time work." 

King died before the Poor People's Campaign could form a list of specific goals. But he planned for a march from across the country to convene in Washington, D.C., meet with officials and demand jobs, fair wages, better education and unemployment benefits.
For six weeks in May and June 1968, thousands of poor people camped on the National Mall in Washington, calling for jobs and living wages, among other things.  They did not conduct massive civil disobedience, as King had earlier advocated. However they did did win some concessions from the federal government. Although the campaign carried on with help from King's deputies, it faltered without his leadership.
At the time of his death, King was pushing an idea that might be considered among his most radical: Not only should poverty be eradicated, he argued, but everyone should be guaranteed an income that would prevent them from falling into poverty.

Handout #2:

Today's Struggle by Low-Wage Workers

A ‘Titanic year' for low-wage workers
Over the past year, workers in some of America's lowest-paying industries have gone on strike in unprecedented numbers. Fast food workers in over 100 cities have walked off the job, demanding a base wage of $15 per hour and the right to form a union. Wal-Mart workers pushed ahead in their campaign against the world's largest private employer, winning some positive media coverage and a favorable ruling from the National Labor Relations Board.

Meanwhile, low-wage, federally contracted workers attracted the support of over 60 sitting members of Congress, and campaigns across the country for a higher minimum wage won substantive results. Reports MSNBC

Courtney Shackleford is one of two entry-level employees at the Ben and Jerry's in Washington, D.C.,'s Union Station, where she makes $8.25 an hour. Like many workers in America's growing low-wage economy, she struggles to make ends meet: Between her pregnancy and her tuition fees at Trinity Washington University, Shackleford doesn't make enough to cover basic expenses. ....

But Shackleford isn't just a low-wage worker: She's a low-wage worker whose employer happens to have a contract with the United States government. Because the Ben and Jerry's that she works at is located in a federally-owned building, the federal government has broad latitude to determine how employees there are treated. On Thursday, Shackleford and about 175 other federally contracted workers are going on strike, rallying outside the White House, and asking the president to exercise that authority.

Roughly 2 million low wage employees—defined as employees who make $12 or less per hour—work for companies with government contracts or other forms of government funding, according to a report from the think tank Demos. For several months, Washington-based workers who fit that description have been organizing under the banner of the labor group Good Jobs Nation, in the hopes that they can push President Obama to sign an executive order which would increase their pay."  

"This year was titanic," said Kendall Fells, organizing director for the fast food workers' group Fast Food Forward. "People that were optimistic about this campaign, even that very small group of people got blown out of the water."
 (Ned Resnikoff, MSNBC) 
Civil  disobedience at Wal-Mart 
(November 3, 2013) "This Thursday hundreds of people will begin a process of trying to waken Wal-Mart from its slumbers—from its denial of the welfare and dignity of the hundreds of thousands of its workers who are paid poverty wages. .. At this demonstration, almost 100 women and men—and I among them—will be committing an act of nonviolent civil disobedience in order to rouse people and bring attention to the hidden violence of Wal-Mart's practice. ... Impoverishment, especially in the form of full time work which does not pay enough to feed one's family or keep shelter over one's head, is a violent act."
Blog by Aryeh Cohen 
In the last year, Wal-Mart employees themselves have been increasingly vocal in protesting their low pay. Since the last holiday season, Wal-Mart employees in stores throughout the country have repeatedly spoken out in pursuit of a modest wage goal: the equivalent of $25,000 a year in wages for a full-time employee."
Catherine Ruetschlin & Amy Traub on Demos  
Fast Food Forward fights for higher minimum wage
(December 5, 2013)  Demonstrators gathered outside fast-food restaurants in 100 cities Thursday, campaigning for a $15 an hour wage and the right to unionize.  The series of daylong mini-strikes were coordinated by Fast Food Forward, an advocacy group that said it is making progress advancing the message that higher wages for fast-food workers will have an overall benefit for the American economy. The visible participation of organized labor in the fast-food demonstrations, which came a year after some New York City workers walked off the job, pointed to shifting age demographics in the country's pool of low-wage laborers.
"This movement is really growing in a way unlike anything we've seen with worker organizing in the last several decades," said Jack Temple, policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.
Martha C. White, NBC News