One of the tents in the Poor People’s Campaign’s Resurrection City was painted with a passage from Genesis 37:19-20: “And they said one to another, behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, some evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams. MLK Jr. 1929–1968.”1Charlyne Hunter, “On the Case in Resurrection City,” in August Meier, John H. Bracey, and Elliott Rudwick, eds., Black Protest in the Sixties (M. Wiener, 1991), 9.
What has become of the dream? What was the dream? Competing campaigns followed the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One swiftly and deftly began to replace King the radical with King the successful and celebrated American reformer. This King has been used to demonstrate the perfectibility and essential goodness of the great American democracy, where racism is so shallow that it can be ended by children holding hands.
But another campaign followed the assassination, one that King had died planning. When King looked over into the promised land and tried to discern how we would get there, he had called together the poor to lead the way. This dream was a strategic vision for building a movement capable of tackling the enmeshed evils of racism, poverty and militarism. Its first step was the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort to bring together leaders from among the poor from all regions of the nation and from across racial and ethnic lines. Together they would go to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1968, occupying the capital in a tent city, disrupting national business and making clear that the poor would not allow their families to bear the brunt of poverty, racism and war.
The Poor People’s Campaign that transpired after King’s assassination has been called the Civil Rights Movement’s “last gasp,” a “dissipated dream,” and “beloved community gone forever”—not by its opponents, but by its top leaders and advisors.2Charles Fager, Uncertain Resurrection: The Poor People’s Washington Campaign (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 142; Hampton, Fayer, and Flynn, Voices of Freedom, 477–78, 480. But King envisioned the Campaign not as the conclusion of a past period but as the initiation of a coming one. He told the SCLC staff in 1967,
We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights … We must recognize that we can’t solve our problems until there is a radical re-distribution of economic and political power … Now, when 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. We were seeking to reform certain conditions in the house of our nation because the nation wasn’t living up to the very rules of the house that it has prescribed in the Constitution. Then after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution. I think we must see the great distinction between a reform movement and a revolutionary movement. Now we are called upon to raise some questions about the house itself … In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.3Martin Luther King Jr., “Speech at Staff Retreat” (Frogmore, SC, May 1967), King Speeches, Series 3, Box #13, King Center Archives.
As only a first campaign in a larger movement, King believed their goals must be larger than what one campaign could accomplish. But he believed that a Poor People’s Campaign could help them find the right relationships and tactics that would make greater success possible. They needed to take new risks, to study the ways their opponents responded, to find their relative strengths, and this process would develop the leadership for a movement in the era of human rights.4Jose Yglesias, “Dr. King’s March on Washington, Part II,” in Black Protest in the Sixties, ed. August Meier, John H. Bracey, and Elliott Rudwick (M. Wiener Pub., 1991), 279–80.
And so King began searching for those who might share this strategic vision, calling together an often unnoticed but historically unprecedented meeting on March 14, 1968 in Atlanta, called the Minority Group Leaders Conference. Vincent Harding was present for the gathering and recalls,
One of the last times I saw King alive, he was meeting in Atlanta in the winter of 1968 with a group of Native Americans, Chicanos, Appalachian whites, and urban black people—in addition to representatives of his basic Southern black constituency and his national church allies. He was looking for a way to draw all these folks together in the struggle for a new peace with justice, for a new citizenship based on responsibility and hope, for a new American nation. The room was palpably charged with the tension of uncertainty and the hope of great, though guarded expectations. That was meant to be the vision and the spirit which informed the deepest levels of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. It was to be the joining of all the causes, all the people.5Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King, the Inconvenient Hero (Orbis Books, 2008), 67.
In the room were leaders from among a wide range of poor communities. It included women from the National Welfare Rights Organization and local welfare rights groups, Native organizers from the Southeast, West and Pacific Northwest; Chicano leaders from the Southwest; Puerto Rican leaders from the Northeast; Poor whites organizing in Appalachia and industrial Northern cities; Migrant and agricultural laborers from Florida, Ohio, California and New York; and poor black leaders North and South. When they were together, King spoke to the significance of the task they were undertaking:
We are assembled here together today with common problems, bringing together ethnic groups that maybe have not been together in this type of meeting in the past. I know I haven’t been in a meeting like this. And it has been one of my dreams that we would come together and realize our common problems. Power for poor people will really mean having the ability, the togetherness, the assertiveness, and the aggressiveness to make the power structure of this nation say yes when they may be desirous to say no. And it is my hope that we will get together, and be together, and really stand up to gain power for poor people—Black people, Mexican-Americans, American-Indians, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian Whites, all working together to solve the problem of poverty.6Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis, Documentary, Biography, History, 1970.
Moving toward a more broadly shared leadership, they elected a Poor People’s Campaign Steering Committee, including Hank Adams of the Indian Committee for Fishing Rights in Washington State; Robert Fulcher, a poor white Community Action Program Organizer in West Virginia; Rodolfo Corky Gonzales of Crusade for Justice in Colorado; Grace Mora Newman of the anti-war Fort Hood Three Committee; Peggy Terry, a poor white mom politicized by civil rights and encouraged by King to organize other poor whites, including in the JOIN Community Union in Chicago; Reies Tijerina, a Chicano organizer in the Aliauja Federal de Pueblas Libres in New Mexico; Gerena Valentin of the Puerto Rican Committee for Human Rights in New York; and Tillie Walker, a Mandan who used her position in the United Indian Scholarship Fund to organize young Natives across the country.
This steering committee reconvened with King and the SCLC staff later that month in a meeting chaired by the National Welfare Rights Organization’s Etta Horn. They shared their own organizing experiences and discussed the challenges of what they were attempting to do together. Tijerina said, “Super-strategy, super-wisdom is needed to develop justice in this country! The power structure, our enemy, is worse than a snake!” To which King agreed, “His weapons can bring down empires.” Tijerina continued, “We have a common enemy that is destroying the relation between us and God … We have a great opportunity to establish a very solid historical beginning in Washington, D.C. It is a great place to begin working together.”
Clifton Johnson, a disabled father of 15 who had been organizing in Eastern Kentucky pointed out that “The power structure would like nothing better than to have us fall out among ourselves.” Speaking to the challenges of out-organizing racial division, Johnson said organizing in the region had to start by saying “we’ve got one thing in common: we’re all poor.”
When King came out against the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, one year before his assassination, he was accused of abandoning black people and black issues by the press, by elected officials and by other civil rights leaders.7A New York Times editorial, “Dr. King’s Error” concluded, “This is a fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together, Dr. King has done a disservice to both” (“Dr. King’s Error,” New York Times, April 7, 1967.). A Washington Post editorial similarly argued, “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to the cause, to his country and his people” (“A Tragedy,” Washington Post, April 6, 1967.). For King, it was not that he was willing to trade progress on civil rights for a moral stance on the war. It was that he believed racism, militarism and poverty were knotted together. To pretend that they could address one but not the other was a delusion, perhaps intentionally stoked to secure war support among those who stood to gain little from the war itself. King called the war a “cruel manipulation of the poor,” and by the poor he was thinking of those in the U.S. and in Vietnam. There was a “cruel irony” in “watching Negro and white boys … in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village” when they would not be seated together in school or guaranteed the liberties they were purportedly exporting to Vietnam in their own country. The poor were disproportionately represented among the military. Their lives were risked “on the side of the wealthy and the secure while we create a hell for the poor.”8King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence (Beyond Vietnam).” This speech was developed from a draft written by Vincent Harding at King’s request. (Hampton, Fayer, and Flynn, Voices of Freedom, 344.) The number of black soldiers in the Vietnam War approximated the general black population. However, 22% of soldiers killed in Vietnam were black, double the proportion of black soldiers (Pepper, Orders to Kill, 453).
But not only were poor soldiers cruelly manipulated, so were the poor at home. It was not simply that the war budget de-prioritized and defunded Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, but the war itself was tied to economic exploitation. War and economic exploitation shared an objectification of human beings and a violation of human personhood. King understood that “If you will treat human beings as a means to an end, you thingify those human beings. And if you will thingify persons, you will exploit them economically. And if you will exploit persons economically, you will abuse your military power to protect your economic investments and your economic exploitations.”9King, Jr., “Speech at Staff Retreat (May 1967),” 10. A similar statement was made in King, Jr., “Address to the 11th SCLC Convention: Where Do We Go From Here?” in which King roots this pattern of objectification in slavery. The spoils of economic exploitation and war required each other to maintain themselves. King pointed to the ability of the poor to recognize this contradiction when he announced the Poor People’s Campaign: “Poor people who are treated with derision and abuse by an economic system soon conclude with elementary logic that they have no rational interest in killing people 12,000 miles away in the name of defending that system.”10Martin Luther King, Jr., “Press Conference on Washington Campaign” (Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, December 4, 1967), 4, King Speeches, Series 3, Box 13, King Center Archives.
For King, the existence of poverty was a critique of the concentration of wealth at the expense of the poor. He interchangeably used the words ‘poverty,’ ‘materialism,’ and ‘economic exploitation,’ as all three terms described the dimensions of his structural economic critique. Just months before his assassination he spoke publicly in terms critical not only of the excesses of capitalism, but of its normal functioning. He drew a line of continuity between the capitalism of the slave economy and the globalizing capitalism of his own time:
Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that Capitalism grew and prospered out of the protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice, the fact is that Capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor—both black and white, both here and abroad.11King, Jr., “The Three Evils of Society,” (Chicago, IL, 1967). King Speeches, Series 3, Box #13, King Center Archives, 7.
King welcomed the increased attention to the persistence of poverty in the War on Poverty programs and Kerner Commission Report. But the dominant mid-century understanding of poverty was that it was anachronistic with the evolution of market capitalism. If the problem of poverty was a problem of exclusion from full participation in the market economy (through racial discrimination, geographic isolation, displacement by industry transitions, and cultural misfits), then the solution was to intercede to bring the poor into that system, or at least give them the opportunity to join the system, to share in prosperity through waged employment. This is why the programs of Johnson’s War on Poverty focused on early education and job training. But King pointed out that many of the poor did work and yet remained poor. And the unemployed were not only those who lacked the skills for work but those who had been displaced by technology (e.g. in cotton production and coal mining). The signs of the automation of northern industry were only beginning to show, but King understood the implications. “Automation is imperceptibly but inexorably producing dislocations, skimming off unskilled labor from the industrial force. The displaced are flowing into proliferating service occupations. These enterprises are traditionally unorganized and provide low wage scales with longer hours.”12King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here, 141. King also wrote, “The technological revolution expressed in automation and cybernetics is edging the Negro and certain poor whites into a socially superfluous role, into permanent uselessness and hopeless impoverishment.” King, Jr., “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast.” The fundamental problem was not with the poor but with the concentration of wealth through the exploitation of the poor:
If Negroes and poor whites do not participate in the free flow of wealth within our economy, they will forever be poor, giving their energies, their talents and their limited funds to the consumer market but reaping few benefits and services in return. The way to end poverty is to end the exploitation of the poor, ensure them a fair share of the government services and the nation’s resources.13King, Jr., “Three Evils,” 7.
And so in the midst of an overwhelming schedule of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, King received a call from Memphis asking him to come speak to 1,300 striking black sanitation workers. King answered that call, despite pleas from his staff not to, saying that the Poor People’s Campaign was meaningless if it didn’t include this strike for the right to a living wage and to join a union. These were the very types of human rights that the era made necessary, and as in the Memphis strike, the leadership had to come from those who had the least to lose and most to gain.
King campaigned to win his closest partners to his emerging strategic understanding of the new human rights period and the tactics he believed would give them some traction, but while King was alive there was no consensus around that strategic vision and the role a Poor People’s Campaign might play in it. It was in this moment of disunity that King was assassinated. Advisor and confidant Harry Belafonte said,
Dr. King in the Poor People’s Campaign … was on a thrust here that was going to give a new and a much broader meaning to the movement, which would have required a more broad based use of people and a more broad based input from leaders on a lot of levels. So that the emerging group that inherited SCLC … were caught in a transitional period for which they were ill equipped to do the task … Had Dr. King had three more years of refining the leaders and the people who came to be for all these diverse areas, the movement would have been, and the country would have been qualitatively different than where it found itself.14Harry Belafonte, Eyes on the Prize, May 15, 1989, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, http://digital.wustl.edu/e/eii/eiiweb/bel5427.0417.013harrybelafonte.html.
And so when King was assassinated, his strategic vision could be assassinated too. The dream could be killed with the dreamer. King scholar David Garrow has documented the ways in which in ‘the last twelve months of his life, King represented a far greater political threat to the reigning American government than he ever had before,” supporting Vincent Harding’s conclusion that his “assassination was surely not the work of some lone and unabetted white racist criminal.” King was not under constant covert surveillance for his own safety, despite numerous attempts and threats on his life and his family. Instead the government feared him and his ability to move masses of people. Ramsey Clark, who served as Attorney General under Johnson from 1967–69 was intimately involved in the Justice Department and interagency surveillance of King’s work and the Poor People’s Campaign. Clark later emphasized that the “persistent pursuit of the truth” related to government involvement in the assassination was “important to the future of our country.”15Clark’s comment was related to the work of William Pepper, the King associate and King family attorney whose work on the civil trial of James Earl Ray extensively documented multilayered government involvement in the events surrounding King’s assassination. William F. Pepper, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (New York: Verso, 2003).
Thousands of poor people did come to Washington, D.C. from across the nation, including through the new shared leadership of those who had come together in Atlanta just three weeks before King was assassinated. And among them were those who sought to take up King’s strategic vision for why a campaign led by the poor would be necessary to build a new leadership for a human rights movement.
The day after the assassination, the American Friends Service Committee, an organization that King had turned to when seeking to expand relationships with the organized poor across racial and ethnic lines, wrote to the National Council of Churches about this moment of crisis and its responsibilities:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was leading a suffering band of poor people toward the seats of power in order to effect radical change in our social order nonviolently. He was killed to stop the march and to preserve the status quo … The Poor People’s Campaign will continue. Where one man has died, a dozen living will come forward … Wallowing in guilt will not save babies; nor will protestations of blamelessness appease the angry young men … As the nation grows richer, the gap widens between the poor and the comfortable.
The dreamer was slain. What became of his dream? Today we are called not to mere memorial, but to resurrection. To give new life to the idea that the soul of the nation can be saved. To fight for an understanding of the dream that was a threat to power and had to be destroyed. We are organizing the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival because we believe that the time for commemorations is over. Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis said in Memphis on April 4th that “We need to pick up the baton and carry it the next mile.” As Rev. Dr. Barber said from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, “Nothing would be more tragic than for us than to turn back now.”
As we pass April 4, 2018 we come to April 5, 2018. And like April 5, 1968, this is the moment where we must see whether where one has died so many more will come forward, ‘many Martins’ who will reach into the blood to take up the unfinished work of Dr. King.
|↑1||Charlyne Hunter, “On the Case in Resurrection City,” in August Meier, John H. Bracey, and Elliott Rudwick, eds., Black Protest in the Sixties (M. Wiener, 1991), 9.|
|↑2||Charles Fager, Uncertain Resurrection: The Poor People’s Washington Campaign (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969), 142; Hampton, Fayer, and Flynn, Voices of Freedom, 477–78, 480.|
|↑3||Martin Luther King Jr., “Speech at Staff Retreat” (Frogmore, SC, May 1967), King Speeches, Series 3, Box #13, King Center Archives.|
|↑4||Jose Yglesias, “Dr. King’s March on Washington, Part II,” in Black Protest in the Sixties, ed. August Meier, John H. Bracey, and Elliott Rudwick (M. Wiener Pub., 1991), 279–80.|
|↑5||Vincent Harding, Martin Luther King, the Inconvenient Hero (Orbis Books, 2008), 67.|
|↑6||Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis, Documentary, Biography, History, 1970.|
|↑7||A New York Times editorial, “Dr. King’s Error” concluded, “This is a fusing of two public problems that are distinct and separate. By drawing them together, Dr. King has done a disservice to both” (“Dr. King’s Error,” New York Times, April 7, 1967.). A Washington Post editorial similarly argued, “Many who have listened to him with respect will never again accord him the same confidence. He has diminished his usefulness to the cause, to his country and his people” (“A Tragedy,” Washington Post, April 6, 1967.).|
|↑8||King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence (Beyond Vietnam).” This speech was developed from a draft written by Vincent Harding at King’s request. (Hampton, Fayer, and Flynn, Voices of Freedom, 344.) The number of black soldiers in the Vietnam War approximated the general black population. However, 22% of soldiers killed in Vietnam were black, double the proportion of black soldiers (Pepper, Orders to Kill, 453).|
|↑9||King, Jr., “Speech at Staff Retreat (May 1967),” 10. A similar statement was made in King, Jr., “Address to the 11th SCLC Convention: Where Do We Go From Here?” in which King roots this pattern of objectification in slavery.|
|↑10||Martin Luther King, Jr., “Press Conference on Washington Campaign” (Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, December 4, 1967), 4, King Speeches, Series 3, Box 13, King Center Archives.|
|↑11||King, Jr., “The Three Evils of Society,” (Chicago, IL, 1967). King Speeches, Series 3, Box #13, King Center Archives, 7.|
|↑12||King, Jr., Where Do We Go from Here, 141. King also wrote, “The technological revolution expressed in automation and cybernetics is edging the Negro and certain poor whites into a socially superfluous role, into permanent uselessness and hopeless impoverishment.” King, Jr., “Negroes Are Not Moving Too Fast.”|
|↑13||King, Jr., “Three Evils,” 7.|
|↑14||Harry Belafonte, Eyes on the Prize, May 15, 1989, Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, http://digital.wustl.edu/e/eii/eiiweb/bel5427.0417.013harrybelafonte.html.|
|↑15||Clark’s comment was related to the work of William Pepper, the King associate and King family attorney whose work on the civil trial of James Earl Ray extensively documented multilayered government involvement in the events surrounding King’s assassination. William F. Pepper, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King (New York: Verso, 2003).|