The organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign had ambitious goals, however they were unsuccessful in getting the federal government to pass substantial anti-poverty legislation.
The campaign was originally conceived in 1967 by the Martin Luther King Jr., who led the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
During a press conference held Dec. 4, 1967 to announce the campaign, King said the SCLC will lead waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. 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,” King stated. “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.”
The organizers planned to demand that President Lyndon Johnson and Congress help the poor get jobs, health care and affordable, decent housing. Their demands included a $30 billion annual appropriation for a real war on poverty, Congressional passage of full employment and guaranteed income legislation and construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year.
However, King would not live to see the march materialize. While campaigning for striking sanitation workers, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, just weeks before the march was held.
The march led by Rev. Ralph Abernathy on May 12, 1968 drew about 50,000 people to the National Mall. Five days after the march, about 5,000 protestors built an encampment called “Resurrection City” where they they lived for 42 days, until they were evicted on June 24, 1968.
As Wornie Reed reflects back on participating in the Poor People’s Campaign when he was 30 years old, he often thinks about how the effort would have turned out if King wasn’t assassinated. Reed met King during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and joined him on the 1963 March on Washington.
“One of the greatest feelings were what might have been if MLK had not been assassinated because it was going to be larger than any demonstration that had ever occurred in this country before,” Reed said during an Tribune interview.
“It was going to be pretty aggressive — a lot more aggressive than what people talk about today.”
He noted that many young Black radical groups decided to support the campaign’s effort.
“It was going to be so big and so disruptive and I was always wondering what King was going to do because he was going to finding himself leading a very radical group of people,” said Reed, who is a sociology professor and the director of the Race and Social Policy Research Center at Virginia Tech.
The Poor People’s Campaign fell short of its overall goals and has been regarded as a failure by journalists and historians . The effort resulted in some mild achievements including Congress extending labor programs, the Senate approving an additional $5 million for Head Start and $13 million for summer jobs. Congress also approved $139 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ education and welfare services. The government also approved rent subsides and homeownership assistance for the poor.
“I discount most of what was done,” said Reed, 80, of the measures taken by the government after the campaign. “In retrospect, it is clear that more would have been done if King had lived.”
During the interview, Reed reflected on the widespread impact of the Kerner Commission’s March 1, 1968 report which found that poverty and institutional racism were driving the violent inner-city riots plaguing American cities during the 1960s.
“It forthrightly labeled white racism as reason for the riots and it gave a prescription for what America should do and as people were beginning to discuss this, Martin Luther King was assassinated,” Reed said of the report.
“What happened is we didn’t even get to a chance to have a debate on doing some of those things because King was killed and then the narrative changed from discussing those kind of issues and abating those kind of issues, because we had riots all over the country with his assassination.”
He said from then on the emphasis was placed on the “problematic nature of Black ghetto culture.”
“Blacks were being blamed for the situation, even though the Kerner Commission report had just come out and said they’re not the blame — white created the ghetto and they maintained the ghetto,” Reed continued.
The 2018 Initiative
Thousands of anti-poverty activists launched a campaign in 2018 modeled after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968.
Like the push 50 years ago, advocates are hoping to draw attention to those struggling with deep poverty from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta, from the American Southwest to California’s farm country.
The latest effort was led by the Rev. William Barber of Goldsboro, North Carolina, and the Rev. Liz Theoharis of New York City, who are still encouraging activists in 40 states to take part in acts of civil disobedience, teach-ins and demonstrations to force communities to address poverty. They say poverty continues to be ignored and only a “moral revival” can bring it to the nation’s consciousness.
The new campaign also has brought attention to the tumultuous summer of 1968 when the two leading backers of the campaign — King and Robert F. Kennedy — were assassinated two months apart.
Organizers of the 2018 campaign said they wanted to use the 50th anniversary of the 1968 effort to restart conversations around the struggles that poor people continue to face, especially since the U.S. poverty rate is roughly back to around 13 percent.
This time, Barber and Theoharis said the campaign won’t be centered solely in Washington and would include events around the country.
For 40 days, demonstrators planned to hold acts of civil disobedience like blocking traffic and refusing to leave public buildings every Monday nationwide. Hundreds of activists, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, have been arrested so far.
Theoharis said the purpose is to build “a season of organizing” to create a long-term movement aimed at restoring the Voting Rights Act, ending gerrymandering and helping bolster the minimum wage. She said organizers also hope to influence the midterm elections this November and the 2020 presidential election.
Because the nation is more diverse than in 1968, Barber said the new campaign also calls for protection of immigrants, LGBT residents and refugees from the Middle East.
Barber said media coverage of poverty has been ignored and overshadowed by what he calls “Trump porn” — excessive coverage of President Donald Trump’s tweets, the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the legal fight with adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
Small newspapers that used to cover poor rural areas like Linden, Tennessee, and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota also have faced cutbacks. Not since Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign have national politicians regularly visited rural, poor areas and focused on poverty in their platforms.
In addition, Barber said many Christians have ignored the plight of the poor since megachurches regularly focus on the “prosperity gospel.” Others have been focused solely on abortion and fighting gay rights, he said.
Barber said the multifaith campaign seeks to reaffirm messages that religious figures like Jesus were primarily concerned about helping the poor and that the country has a moral obligation to tackle poverty.
He also promised that organizers plan to pressure for media coverage of U.S.-Mexico border areas like El Paso, Texas, and Native American communities like San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona.
— Report included material from Associated Press writer Russell Contreras, who is a member of the AP’s race and ethnicity team.