Building a Poor People’s Campaign for Today
The emergency we now face is economic, and it is a desperate and worsening situation. For the 35 million poor people in America – not even to mention, just yet, the poor in the other nations – there is a kind of strangulation in the air. In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist. You are in a real way depriving him of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, denying in his case the very creed of his society. Now, millions of people are being strangled that way. The problem is international in scope. And it is getting worse, as the gap between the poor and the ‘affluent society’ increases…The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life…” (Martin Luther King Jr., Massey Lectures, November-December, 1967)
On December 4, 1967, the Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr announced plans for a Poor People’s Campaign and called for the nation to take dramatic steps to end poverty. Despite his assassination the campaign went forward but was cut short. The U.S. government, consumed by waging war in Vietnam, did not heed the call by King and the poor people who traveled to Washington.
Today, nearly 50 years later, we are experiencing unprecedented poverty in the midst of plenty; unnecessary abandonment in spite of unheard abundance. According to official data, at least 46.5 million people, including 1 of every 5 children, are living in poverty, an increase of more than 9 million since 2008. An additional 97.3 million people are officially designated as low income. Taken together, this means that 48% of the U.S. population, nearly one in every two people, is poor or low income.
Inequality meanwhile has reached record levels and continues to climb as the wealth of the richest among us continues to soar. The top 1% of the population own 43% of the nation’s wealth; the top 5% own 72% of wealth and the bottom 80% are left with just 7% of wealth. At the same time, racial and gender inequality remains as deep as ever. For example, for 50 years the unemployment rate for blacks has consistently been twice as high as the rate for whites and the large gap in household income and in wealth between blacks and whites hasn’t narrowed. Women, and especially women of color, are also disproportionately poor. In 2012 more than 5 million more women than men were living in poverty and two million more women than men were living in deep poverty.
Behind each of these statistics is massive human suffering and oppression to which there has been little if any government response. While the mass Occupy Wall Street protests succeeded for a time in focusing national attention on inequality and in changing the rhetoric of some politicians, there has been little serious discussion and even less action on plans to reduce, let alone end, poverty and soaring inequality.
What there has been, little mainstream media notice notwithstanding, is growing resistance and struggle pushed forward by people who are literally organizing and fighting for their lives, rights and deepest values. They are fighting on a wide number of different issues: good affordable homes, health, education, reproductive choices, racial and gender equality, democracy, peace, a humane immigration system, living wage and good jobs, food, water, and an end to mass and cruel incarceration. When the issues begin to be joined and people unite in a common moral vision, as is happening with the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and the fight for the right to water and all human rights in Michigan, the struggle can reach historic levels with tens of thousands mobilized and taking regular actions. In states such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland, California, Vermont and others, important victories have been won through grassroots campaigns on a range of issues such as workers protections, higher wages, LGBTQ rights, health care, and rollback on mass incarceration.
We experience the power and joy of these campaigns and celebrate the gains from struggles led by those most directly affected. Yet we all are painfully aware of the limits of our victories as overall conditions worsen and inequality and poverty continue to grow. Traveling around the country meeting with leaders, as the Poverty Initiative did recently in a Pedagogy of the Poor National tour, one finds a growing need and yearning to connect better separated battles and begin creating a broader and deeper social movement with the power and vision to take on not just the rotten fruits of poverty, inequality, and oppression but the national and global systems and structures that produce them. Such a movement would incorporate and build on struggles now taking place, strengthening their connections to produce the unity that alone can move us from merely reacting to different disasters to transforming society. It was a vision of just such a transformative movement that led Dr. King to call for a Poor People’s Campaign. It is the same urgent need today that leads to the call for a new Poor People’s Campaign to abolish poverty
The power of a movement led by the poor
With the experience of more than a decade of helping to build one of the most transformative social movements in U.S. history, 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 describing 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 a “new and unsettling force” had to be formed. He described this force as a multi-racial “nonviolent army of the poor, a freedom church of the poor.” In other words, the poor would have to organize to take action together around their immediate and basic needs, thereby becoming a powerful social and political force capable of changing the terms of how poverty is understood, dispelling the myths and stereotypes upholding the mass complacency that leaves the root causes of poverty intact.
King knew that dividing the poor by creating different levels of oppression based on race and gender is critical to maintaining the power of the most privileged. He also understood, as we must, that you cannot fight poverty without fighting the social ills that cause or deepen it, the same social ills that threaten and damage the security and well-being of people everywhere. You cannot end poverty without ending racial, gender, and class inequality. Mass incarceration is mass incarceration of poor people. Climate change endangers everyone but has its most immediate and devastating effects on the poor. Immigrants are in movement to escape poverty and their mistreatment keeps them poor in new places. The lack of reproductive and child rearing choices hurts all women while pushing many into poverty and making it harder to escape. The denial of labor rights reduces wages for all workers while dramatically increasing the number of workers in poverty.
These and other struggles, far from being unrelated, must be an integral and essential component of any common fight to abolish poverty. Equally important, fighting to end poverty is essential to winning genuine victories against any of these injustices. This is the basis not just for the unity of people but the unity of struggles. How to build this unity can only be done by actively learning from those who have been engaged in particular struggles.
And this key lesson applies globally as well as nationally. In recent decades there has been a dramatic spread and development of global capital and the systems that serve it as well as the intensification of struggles against its horrific consequences. These have revealed more than ever that the work to abolish poverty in the United States can be won only as part of the struggle against an international order that inflicts suffering and fuels violent conflicts around the world. The challenge of building forms of global unity begins by learning about, listening to, and developing forms of mutual support and common action with as many movements and struggles as possible in other regions and countries.
Led by the poor; Involving everyone
The poor and dispossessed have come to embody all major injustices of our time. Their united actions give them the capability of providing a rallying point for this broader and more powerful social movement. Far from putting aside these issues to focus on yet another one, such a movement would strengthen these different struggles by recognizing them as inter-connected, inseparable and central to the fight to end poverty and create a moral and just society. The leading role of the poor in these struggles is critical to building this movement. As history has shown time and time again, from the fight to end slavery and wars and for women’s, labor, LGBTQ, and civil rights, the first and essential step in building an effective movement is uniting those most deeply affected by the problem.
It is essential but not enough. History has also shown that powerful movements require the involvement and support of all sectors with an interest in a radically different society. This means nearly everyone. The poor today, representing the increasing breakdown of society and its economy, are drawn from every segment of society, from white collars as well as formerly industrial workers to students to the homeless. A recent study measuring “economic insecurity” found that 4 of 5 people living in the U.S. live in danger of poverty or unemployment at some point in their lifetime. A key objective of building the unity and power of the poor is to help those who feel they are still in the middle to realize their common interest in the fight to end poverty. This task is all the more crucial as the wealthy attempt to win the same battle by turning those who have little against the poor who have even less.
But the scale, extent, and endurance of the economic crisis and the lack of any adequate government response has made this long standing game harder to play. The permanent crisis has raised the most serious questions about the prevailing ideological orthodoxies, which for too long have defined what is “realistically” possible in terms of social change. And even those who feel economically secure can see that mass poverty and economic hardship amidst such wealth and productive power obscenely violates our most sacred values. As a religious thinker and leader, King understood well why the poor are at the heart of so many sacred texts and of diverse understandings of the divine. The presence of the poor and the way they are treated calls into question the core values and structures of a community, society and global order. People from all sectors will join and are needed in the fight for a different society that reflects their values. This is why King called for a revolution of values, and put forward not just a new political vision but a moral one of a society in which people are not treated as commodities to be thrown away but as precious brothers and sisters.
Not just commemorating but learning from and pushing forward the unfinished revolution
2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign launched by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was his last campaign, cut tragically short not only by his assassination and that of key allies like Robert Kennedy, but by growing disagreements within the broader movement around nonviolence and nationalism and deep divisions within the nation over the escalating war in Vietnam and its devastating impact on social programs. It is not an accident that relatively little national attention has been given to King’s last campaign and his call for a radical restructuring of U.S. society. For that reason alone it will be important to honor the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign. Given the conditions of poverty, inequality and injustice we face today, however, the only genuine way to commemorate the past struggle is to build a new Poor People’s Campaign for today.
Lessons of the first Poor People’s Campaign
A first step in building a new Poor People’s Campaign is to learn from what happened in 1967-68 and analyze what is different in terms of obstacles and opportunities. Attached to this paper is a brief summary and history of the 1967-68 campaign including additional resources for further study.
There are many lessons to be learned. One of the clearest is that a campaign on the scale called for by the crisis cannot be launched by, or belong to, a few leaders or organizations. What is needed is a movement that reflects the needs, concerns, experiences and demands of as many, and as diverse, struggles taking place in communities, states and regions across the country as possible. While solidarity was the goal of the participant’s march in 1968, the haste with which the campaign was created left little time for genuine relationship building between the many constituencies that needed to be involved and even less time for the development of a common sophisticated analysis of what people are experiencing that could lead to structural reforms. These tasks are no less urgent today. They will not be easy.
The divisions that have been created among us are real, deep, and long standing. Racism and sexism are not the simple outcome of class and economic oppression. Their utility and endurance depend on not only elaborate social structures but the creation and long standing forms of thinking and behavior that are historically evolved and pervasive. These do not simply disappear with a formal commitment to equality. They have to be constantly confronted and fought.
What must also be confronted and fought constantly is the other side of the use of race and gender oppression. This is the denial of the poverty and economic injustice and insecurity that afflict massive numbers of white people and the continual and myriad efforts to persuade them that whatever their suffering, their interests lie with the people and structures that cause it rather than with those people of color who are
disproportionately impoverished but share with them the conditions of poverty and dispossession. As King knew and history has repeatedly shown, when this promoted narrative begins to falter and recognition of common interest and humanity begins to forge unity, the possibility of social transformation moves dramatically closer to reality. This is why the idea of uniting the poor was such a threat in 1967. It is why it still is.
To begin to overcome such deep divides and build such necessary unity will require multiple approaches. Space must be created to hear the stories of the people who will make up the body of this struggle. We must take the time to learn from one another, to critically understand problems we are facing, and the experience of our different struggles. We will need to build trust and this will be done not only by talk but by finding ways to join in key preliminary struggles. And because the struggle is also over ideas and values it is essential to address the values and principles that shape the consciousness of Americans. As King did then and many other heroes and heroines are doing so well today we need to draw on the resources for hope and commitment found in the world’s religions, including the Bible.
Building hope by moving together
The first step of building the campaign is for all interested groups to reach out to and start talking with as many others as possible. We are beginning strategic dialogues both by bringing groups together and by going to different communities across the country where groups are fighting back. As these conversations develop so will the plans and the structures that will make the new Poor Peoples Campaign possible.
Because the building of the campaign is so important all this has to be done thoughtfully, carefully, and inclusively. Because it is so urgent we have to start now. And together we can and will.
Addendum: The 1967-68 Poor People’s Campaign
In order to build a new Poor People’s Campaign in the twenty-first-century, we must first study and learn from the 1967-68 Campaign. In December 1967, Rev. Dr. King announced the plan to bring 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. Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy explained that the intention of the Poor People’s Campaign was to “dramatize the plight of America’s poor of all races and make very clear that they are sick and tired of waiting for a better life.”1 Rev. Dr. King proposed,
If you are, let’s say, from rural Mississippi, and have never had medical attention, and your children are undernourished and unhealthy, you can take those little children into the Washington hospitals and stay with them there until the medical workers cope with their needs, and in showing it your children you will have shown this country a sight that will make it stop in its busy tracks and think hard about what it has done.
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.
The first gathering of over fifty multiethnic 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 who gathered 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.
In his last Sunday sermon, he stated:
There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in the world today. In a sense it is a triple revolution; that is a technological revolution, with the impact of automation and cybernation; then there is a revolution of weaponry, with the emergence of atomic and nuclear weapon of warfare. Then there is a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion that is taking place all over the world. Yes, we do live in a period where changes are taking place and there is still the voice crying the vista of time saying, “Behold, I make all things new, former things are passed away”… Now whenever anything new comes into history it brings with it new challenges … and new opportunities … We are coming to Washington in a poor people’s campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses … We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists … We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that is signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.2
The triple revolution that Rev. Dr. King highlighted in this sermon emphasized: 1. a technological revolution, 2. a revolution of weaponry, and 3. a human rights revolution, with the freedom explosion taking place all over the world. He argued that social transformation was not inevitable, arising solely out of the historic conditions, but rather needed the commitment, consciousness, capacity and connectedness of the “new and unsettling force” to build a credible and powerful campaign.
The Rev. Dr. King, along with the input of 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. An important aspect of his leadership of the Campaign was to petition the government to pass an Economic Bill of Rights as a step to lift the load of poverty.
- $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 eliminated3
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 and mass marches 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 was launched. It began in Washington where key leaders of the campaign gathered for lobbying efforts and media events before dispersing around the country to formally initiate the regional start-ups of the nine caravans going to Washington: the “Eastern Caravan,” the “Appalachia Trail,” the “Southern Caravan,” the “Midwest Caravan,” the “Indian Trail,” the “San Francisco Caravan,” the “Western Caravan,” the “Mule Train,” and the “Freedom Train.”4
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 in Washington to rally around the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign on Solidarity Day. This was the first and only massive movement 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 that King and the SCLC needed for the Poor People’s Campaign to complete all three stages and succeed in forming the “new and unsettling force,” disrupting “complacent national life,” and achieving an economic bill of rights was not easy to come by. And 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 political 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 them and 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.’
And the night before his assassination, in his “Promised Land” speech, he reminded the people that being disunited only benefitted the rich and powerful:
You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.
Shortly before the Poor People’s Campaign came into fruition, King described the kairos moment they were in. His words still ring true today:
Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”… Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. (April 1968)
King and his Poor People’s Campaign asked fundamental questions about the contradictions in his day, which many of the groups interested in re-igniting the Poor People’s Campaign, continue asking today. They are the problems of inequality, power and class:
We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are words that must be said. (August 1967)
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 out 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.
1 Roland L. Freeman, The Mule Train: A Journey of Hope Remembered. (Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1998), 90.
2 Martin Luther King Jr., Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution (sermon delivered at the National Cathedral [Episcopal] in Washington D.C. on March 31, 1968)
3 Thomas Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (Politics and Culture in Modern America; Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 343.
4 Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice, 343.