Poor People's Campaign: Then & Now

February 17, 2018

Fifty years after Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign,  a coalition of multiracial groups has announced that it is launching a new Poor People’s Campaign aimed at addressing divisions in the United States, from racism to economic and gender inequality. In the this lesson, students learn about the original Poor People’s Campaign and the new one, and discuss how the two drives are similar and different.

To The Teacher:
 

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. launched what became his final campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign was a multiracial campaign of poor people who advocated for economic justice for all Americans through lobbying and direct action protest. Although Dr. King was killed before he could see the campaign come to fruition, a number of his advisors and allies continued after his death and led a major mobilization in Washington, DC, in the summer of 1968.

Fifty years later, in the spring of 2018, a coalition of multiracial groups has announced that it is launching a new Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at addressing divisions in the United States, from racism to economic and gender inequality. Led by figures including Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the campaign is using somewhat different tactics than the original effort, but it is endeavoring to draw attention to similar issues of economic injustice.

This lesson looks back at the original Poor People’s Campaign to see what inspired people across the country to take action together fifty years ago, and it compares the Dr. King’s original drive with the new Poor People’s Campaign in 2018. The first reading dives into the history of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, looking at its tactics and objectives. The second reading explores the new Poor People’s Campaign and examines how the new effort might be similar to or different from the original drive.

Questions for discussion follow each reading.

 



Reading One
Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968


In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. launched what became his final campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign was a multiracial campaign of poor people who advocated for economic justice for all Americans through lobbying and direct action protest. Although Dr. King was killed before he could see the campaign come to fruition, a number of his advisors and allies continued after his death and led a major mobilization in Washington, DC, in the summer of 1968.

Fifty years later, in the spring of 2018, a coalition of multiracial groups has announced that it is launching a new Poor People’s Campaign, aimed at addressing divisions in the United States, from racism to economic and gender inequality. Led by figures including Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the campaign is using somewhat different tactics than the original effort, but it is endeavoring to draw attention to similar issues of economic injustice.

How did the original Poor People’s Campaign begin and what did it aim to accomplish?

In December 1967, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) publicly announced a new effort to combat joblessness and economic inequality called the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign would have three phases: an encampment on the National Mall in Washington, DC, lobbying politicians and government agencies to pass an “Economic Bill of Rights”; mass civil disobedience; and a mass boycott of major industries. Dr. King was assassinated just weeks before the campaign was set to begin in 1968.

The following entry from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Encyclopedia, maintained by the King Institute of Stanford University, describes the beginning of the Poor People’s Campaign:
 

“Martin Luther King announced the Poor People’s Campaign at a staff retreat for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in November 1967…. King planned for an initial group of 2,000 poor people to descend on Washington, D.C., southern states and northern cities to meet with government officials to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children designed to improve their self-image and self-esteem.

Suggested to King by Marion Wright, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense and Education Fund in Jackson, Mississippi, the Poor People’s Campaign was seen by King as the next chapter in the struggle for genuine equality. Desegregation and the right to vote were essential, but King believed that African Americans and other minorities would never enter full citizenship until they had economic security. Through nonviolent direct action, King and SCLC hoped to focus the nation’s attention on economic inequality and poverty.

‘This is a highly significant event,’ King told delegates at an early planning meeting, describing the campaign as ‘’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.’ Many leaders of American Indian, Puerto Rican, Mexican American, and poor white communities pledged themselves to the Poor People’s Campaign.”

Dr. King and the SCLC founded the campaign on the premise that people should have what they need to live. The campaign was focused on alleviating poverty for all, with a radical redistribution of wealth. Strategically, the organizers conceived of the campaign in three parts, each designed to increase pressure on politicians so that they would take action. The Poor People’s Campaign Revival website outlines the strategy of the 1968 campaign:
 

“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. With permits from the National Park Service, Resurrection City was to house anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 Campaign participants. Additional participants would be housed in other group and family residences around the metropolitan area. 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. It began in Washington where key leaders of the campaign gathered for lobbying efforts and media events before dispersing around the country to formally launch the nine regional caravans bringing the thousands of participants to Washington….

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….

[Renown labor and civil rights organizer] Bayard Rustin put forth a proposal for an ‘Economic Bill of Rights’ for Solidarity Day that called for the federal government to:
 

  1. Recommit to the Full Employment Act of 1946 and legislate the immediate creation of at least one million socially useful career jobs in public service.
     
  2. Adopt the pending housing and urban development act of 1968.
     
  3. Repeal the 90th Congress’s punitive welfare restrictions in the 1967 Social Security Act.
     
  4. Extend to all farm workers the right–guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act–to organize agricultural labor unions.
     
  5. Restore budget cuts for bilingual education, Head Start, summer jobs, Economic Opportunity Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Acts.

 

In a 2008 report for National Public Radio, journalist Kathy Lohr considered the fate of the Poor People’s Campaign. The story quotes the Rev. Ralph Abernathy speaking at the Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace, and Freedom on June 19, 1968:

“’We come with an appeal to open the doors of America to the almost 50 million Americans who have not been given a fair share of America's wealth and opportunity, and we will stay until we get it,’ Abernathy said as he led the way for demonstrators.

A week later, protesters erected a settlement of tents and shacks on the National Mall where they camped out for six weeks. [Jesse] Jackson became mayor of the encampment, which was called Resurrection City. Conditions were miserable.

‘You know, what I remember I suppose the most about it was that we set the tents up at the foot of Lincoln's memorial,’ he says. ‘It seemed to rain without ceasing and became muddy and people were hurt, and we were still traumatized by Dr. King's assassination. Then while in the Resurrection City, Robert Kennedy was killed.’

The demonstrators were discouraged and disheartened, says Jackson, so he tried to give them hope through words.

‘I am. Somebody,’ he told protestors. ‘I am. God's child. I may not have a job, but I am somebody.’

Jackson says that refran ‘has resonated across the world in this last 40 years, but it grew out of the context of trying to give people a sense of somebody-ness who had nothing, but still had their person and their souls.’

Although as many as 50,000 people ended up marching, the Poor People's Campaign was considered a failure by people who had grown weary of protesting and did not see immediate changes. But not by the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

‘The nation became conscious of the fact that it has an expanding poor population,’ says Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King.”

 

As of the 2016 census, 43.1 million Americans live in poverty, and the official poverty rate is 12.7%. Given these statistics and the lived experience of many Americans, some anti-poverty activists have decided to continue the Poor People’s Campaign to see if they can extend the work of Dr. King and the SCLC to address profound inequalities in our society.

 

For Discussion:
 

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, what was the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, and what did it aim to accomplish?
  1. Dr. King and other organizers planned a three-phase campaign. What were the phases and why do you think that the leaders chose to order the phases in the way they did?
  1. Looking at the five-point platform Bayard Rustin put forward as an “Economic Bill of Rights,” what stands out to you? Are there any aspects that seem particularly relevant for the 1960s that are no longer relevant now? Are there aspects that might be even more relevant today?
  1. Some considered the Poor People's Campaign a shift in the civil rights movement because it highlighted the connections between racial and economic justice. Why do you think that Dr. King saw it necessary to emphasize the relationship between the two?

 


 

Reading Two
The New Poor People’s Campaign & Call for Moral Revival


Leaders from this year’s Poor People’s Campaign Revival have promised a season full of protests at state houses across the country to take place during the spring of 2018. This “revival” campaign is focused on continuing the work of Dr. King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, advocating for economic justice in the United States.

While the 2018 campaign draws inspiration from the drive of 50 years before, it will use new tactics and a slightly different strategy.

Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz. Theoharis are leading the revival campaign. Rev. Barber is a Protestant minister, the former state president of the North Carolina NAACP chapter, and the leader of “Moral Mondays,” a recurring civil rights protest that took place every Monday at the North Carolina state capital for several years, beginning in 2013. Rev. Theoharis is an ordained Presbyterian minister and a co-director of the Kairos Center, a nonprofit whose mission is to strengthen and expand social justice movements.

As prominent faith leaders, the reverends draw on years of preaching. They use moral language to describe what they are calling on followers to do, with Rev. Barber having called for “moral defibrillators of our time” to “shock this nation with the power of love.”

Those at the center of the new Poor People’s Campaign say that the effort comes out of more than a decade of organizing and mobilizing around issues including racism, poverty, militarism and military spending, and environmental destruction.

In a January 15, 2018, article for NBC by journalist Donna Owens, Rev. Liz Theoharis argued that in 2018, the call for moral revival is pressing. She stated that “with extremists who stand against voting rights, living wages, healthcare and immigration reform gaining even more influence today in Washington and in statehouses across the country, the need for this campaign is more urgent than ever.”

As for the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign Revival, Rev. William Barber described the effort in a May 15, 2017, article for Think Progress:
 

“Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a ‘revolution of value’ in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the ‘triplets of evil’— militarism, racism, and economic injustice — to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation to ever exist. Poor people in communities across America — black, white, brown and Native — responded by building a Poor People’s Campaign that would demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor…. [The Marshall Plan was a U.S.-led effort to rebuild Europe after it was devastated during World War 2.]

The fights for racial and economic equality are as inseparable today as they were half a century ago. Make no mistake about it: We face a crisis in America. The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government. Sixty-four million Americans make less than a living wage, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare…. As our social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.

Americans across the country are crying out in defiance — and for change. Bringing this cry into the public square, a Resistance has emerged: The Fight for $15, the Movement for Black Lives, Moral Mondays, the Women’s March, The People’s Climate March and No Ban/No Wall protesters have taken to the streets….

This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable. We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.”
 

Tactically and strategically, the revival campaign plans to both carry on the work of the original Poor People’s Campaign and innovate for the present political moment. Reporter Kirsten West Savali explained in a December 5, 2017, article in The Root how the revival campaign plans to carry out its actions over the next few years:
 

“When tens of thousands of people converge on statehouses across the nation and the U.S. Capitol in May 2018, it will be to further the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Poor People’s Campaign that Marian Wright Edelman, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King Jr., and so many other freedom fighters organized 50 years ago.

The reignited Poor People’s Campaign is expected to be a multiyear effort that will begin on Mother’s Day with six weeks of direct action and civil disobedience across at least 25 states and the District of Columbia, leading up to a mass mobilization at the U.S. Capitol on June 21.

According to organizers, each week will focus on a different injustice, beginning with child poverty, and will include specific policy goals and a voter-education program to advance a moral agenda at the state and federal levels. Coalitions formed in more than 30 states will hold voter-education workshops and train grassroots leaders and activists in direct action, nonviolent civil disobedience and movement building.”
 

Given its explicit connection with the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the moral revival campaign will confront the challenge of drawing on the best parts of the original Poor People’s Campaign while innovating to fit the present political and economic moment in the United States. With actions and press conferences and momentum building each week and month, it will be worthwhile to watch how the revival unfolds.

 

For Discussion
 

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, what is the revival campaign’s plan for the next few months and years?
  1. Which aspects of the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign are similar to the original campaign? Which aspects do you see as different?
  1. The leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign are explicitly calling it a multi-issue campaign. Why do you think they chose to do that? What are some of the issues it is addressing? Are there other issues you would like to see included as part of the campaign? Why?
  1. Rev. Barber argues, “The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government.” Do you agree? Why, or why not? Explain your position.

 

—  Research assistance provided by Ryan Leitner.