The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s praise for the findings of the Kerner Report—more officially the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—is often cited as a significant endorsement. We just passed the fiftieth anniversary of the report’s release, and March 4, 2018 was the anniversary of King’s response.

If you actually read King’s praise for the report’s findings, he argues it is a “prescription to life” and that “This report reveals the absolute necessity of our spring campaign in Washington, D.C. for jobs and income and the right to a decent life. We will begin this campaign on April 22nd with the first wave of poor people.”1All quotations are from Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “Dr. King Calls for Action Against Poverty and Racism Cited in Riot Study; Poor People’s Campaign Starts April 22 in Washington,” March 4, 1968.

When the Kerner report was released King was in the middle of organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, and he saw the Campaign as the way to truly address the crisis studied by the commission. “We will try though sacrifice and militant mass pressure to transform the commission’s report from recommendations to national policy.”  

King pointed out that even stronger recommendations had come across President Johnson’s desk in the Commission on Technology, Automation and Economic Progress. So while the Kerner report was an important confession of the realities of systemic racism and poverty in urban areas, those truths were not new or isolated to the communities that had risen up in protest. And so King’s celebration of the Kerner findings pushed further:

We have a national emergency. The prospect of cities aflame is very real indeed, but I would also remind America of the continuing violence perpetrated daily by racism in our society. The ghetto is looted by outside usurious profit-makers. Poor people are victimized by a riotous Congress and welfare bureaucracy. Lawlessness against persons exercising civil rights continues. The insult of closed housing statutes is preserved and sanctified by white society. Flame-throwers in Vietnam fan the flames in our cities. Children are condemned to attend schools which are institutions of disorder and neglect. The lives, the incomes, the well-being of poor people everywhere in America are plundered by our economic system. No wonder that men who see their communities raped by this society sometimes turn to violence.

Where the report called for the creation of public and private jobs, King called for the right to a job or income. Where the report called for halting the use of weapons of war in urban areas, King called for the end of their use worldwide. And where the report was tasked primarily with an assessment of how to maintain order in central cities, King called for justice and human dignity for all.

But the most significant difference between King and the Kerner report doesn’t concern policy. It is on the question of how change happens. King rightly anticipated that the Kerner report would be praised extensively, “and then the book will be closed because for many people simply to acknowledge evil ends their responsibility.” King learned from history and experience that “eloquence and analysis by themselves do not bring change.” Society doing what is right—and even what is necessary for its own survival—does not happen “until it is confronted directly and militantly.”

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Kerner Commission
Urban uprising in Detroit on July 24, 1967, one of the events that led to the Kerner Commission.

It would be the poor taking action together that could lead the way to the enactment of the Kerner Commission’s policy recommendations. And it would be the poor themselves who could see and insist that to actually transform a society structured around racism, economic exploitation and militarism, the policy recommendations of the Kerner Commission were insufficient.

The Poor People’s Campaign that King was organizing resisted isolating poor, city-center black people from other poor people around the world. The Campaign would bring together poor people of color from both urban and rural areas (at the time sixty percent of poor black families lived outside of city centers).

It would be the poor taking action together that could lead the way to the enactment of the Kerner Commission’s policy recommendations.

And significantly the Poor People’s Campaign would begin to bring together poor people together across lines of racial and ethnic division, insisting that racism and poverty are inseparable. The Campaign’s inclusion of poor whites, who at the time were seventy percent of people living below the federal poverty line, made it harder to use racist ‘culture of poverty’ arguments to explain black poverty, as the Kerner report did, including the idea that black families were pathologically matriarchal or that cultural factors enabled European immigrants to escape from poverty. The real breadth of poverty pointed to systemic rather than superficial flaws in the economy that could not be pinned to one racial group or geography.   

Fifty years later the triple evils of racism, poverty and militarism that gave rise to both the urban uprisings and the Poor People’s Campaign are dangerous crises—not only for those most impacted by them—but for for the whole world. And so today’s Poor People’s Campaign is raising leaders to call forward a national moral revival. We are coming together not to commemorate the past, but because—as King anticipated—the Kerner report that “clamorously warned of the growing darkness” was “duly filed away but discrimination, segregation, poverty and violence did not disappear with them.”

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is taking shape in over thirty states. We have already come together in revivals, mass meetings, and moral-political organizing summits. We have taken action together in our state capitals and in Washington, D.C., delivering letters and testimonies to our elected officials. We are preparing ourselves with political education and training in nonviolent, fusion direct moral action. We are getting to know each other across siloed organizing that has encouraged and funded us to stay apart. And we are creating our own assessment of the conditions of crisis that put our families at risk.

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Poor Peoples Campaign Audit
The Souls of Poor Folk Moral Audit.

In April we will release The Souls of Poor Folks: Auditing America Fifty Years After the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Systemic Racism, Poverty, the War Economy/Militarism and Our National Morality. When we study the audit together we will see our own voices and struggles. It won’t just be our plight but also our fight and insight.

But as King knew well, a document cannot uproot the enmeshed evils of society without a social movement centered in the leadership of the poor and dispossessed as moral agents. And that movement needs a Campaign that calls all people forward out of our great moral teachings—religious, Constitutional and secular—around a transformative agenda. We won’t duly file the Audit away to be rediscovered on its anniversaries, but we will pack it next to our Constitution, our sacred scriptures, our songbook and our banners.

Fifty years ago King said, “the highest patriotism demands the end of that war (in Vietnam) and the opening of a bloodless war to final victory over racism and poverty. Our Washington campaign is an opportunity for the people to bring the Commission’s recommendations to life.” Fifty years later we know too well that the conditions the Kerner report documented have worsened rather than improved. And that reality points to great moral failings that threaten our lives, our nation and our world.

A document cannot uproot the enmeshed evils of society without a social movement centered in the leadership of the poor and dispossessed as moral agents.

King concluded, “We must guarantee that in this richest society in history, the poor, too, can find comfort and security and decent jobs and respect. It is time to re-order our national priorities. If we as a society fail, I fear we will learn very shortly that racism is a sickness unto death.”

Our taking up the call to organize widely and massively—informed by the solid evidence and research of the Audit and rooted in the truths of a moral universe that affirms the dignity of all life—is our commitment not to merely commemorate, but to bring to life a transformative moral agenda. All are welcome.

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