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Remembering and rekindling the 1968 Poor People’s Movement, 50 years later

This year, we commemorate the fifty-year anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, but 2018 also marks fifty years since Dr. King and many others launched the Poor People’s Movement in 1968. The Poor People’s Movement strove to connect issues of poverty and inequality to issues of systemic racism and economic exploitation.

Under the headline “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call to Moral Revival,” a wide-reaching team of workers, pastors, and social justice advocates have teamed up to “reignite” the Poor People’s Movement for the twenty-first century. In February, the Campaign teamed up with Fight for 15 and held rallies in many US cities calling for a $15 federal minimum wage and fair working conditions for low-wage workers.

Starting in May, the Poor People’s Campaign will launch “six weeks of civil disobedience.” To learn more about the projects, rallies, and celebrations planned for this period or to learn more about the Poor People’s Campaign, visit poorpeoplescampaign.org.

In preparation for these six weeks, the Poor People’s Campaign has outlined the history of the original Poor People’s Movement and its demands:

History of the Poor People’s Movement

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. 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 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. In doing, we could become a powerful social and political force capable of changing the terms of how poverty is understood and dispelling the myths and stereotypes that uphold the mass complacency and leave the root causes of poverty intact. He described this force as a multi-racial “nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.”

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. Rev. Dr. King addressed the session saying that it was the first meeting of that kind he had ever participated in. Indeed, meetings where leaders of different sections of the poor and dispossessed come together on the basis of their common needs and demands remain rare and politically taboo.

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 that included:

  • $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. 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. 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.

Bayard Rustin put forth a proposal for an “Economic Bill of Rights” for Solidarity Day that called for the federal government to:

  • 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
  • Adopt the pending housing and urban development act of 1968
  • Repeal the 90th Congress’s punitive welfare restrictions in the 1967 Social Security Act
  • Extend to all farm workers the right–guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act–to organize agricultural labor unions
  • Restore budget cuts for bilingual education, Head Start, summer jobs, Economic Opportunity Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Acts

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. King emphasized the need for poor whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans to unite. He asserted that the Poor People’s Campaign would only be successful if the poor could come together across all the obstacles and barriers set up to divide us and if they could overcome the attention and resources being diverted because of the US engagement in the Vietnam War. In August 1967, he preached:

“One unfortunate thing about [the slogan] Black Power is that it gives priority to race precisely at a time when the impact of automation and other forces have made the economic question fundamental for blacks and whites alike. In this context a slogan ‘Power for Poor People’ would be much more appropriate than the slogan ‘Black Power.’”

King and the other leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign asked fundamental questions about the contradictions of their day. Today, many of the groups interested in re-igniting the Poor People’s Campaign are asking similar questions about the problems of inequality, power and class. King exemplified the clarity, commitment, capability, and connectedness needed to build a movement to end poverty:

I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out… This is the way I’m going.

This commitment is needed from all leaders interested in taking up King’s mantle. He demonstrated the difficulty and necessity of uniting the poor and dispossessed across race, religion, geography and other lines that divide. In our efforts to commemorate and build a Poor People’s Campaign for our times, we will undertake an analysis of the 1967-68 Campaign. We aim to stand on the shoulders of those who came before and put effort into learning lessons and getting into step together.

This history was originally published on poorpeoplescampaign.org.

 

 

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