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Poor People's Campaign

Poor People's Campaign


The Poor People's Campaign, also known as the Poor People's Washington Campaign, was conceived in 1967 by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activists as a means of extending the civil rights agenda to include broad-based demands for economic justice. In the context of massive unrest in urban black communities, King and his colleagues felt that constitutional rights were inadequate to alleviate the crushing poverty and exploitation still faced by the majority of African Americans. At the same time, with the strategy of peaceful protest fast losing ground among the urban poor, they were eager to conduct a campaign that would reassert the legitimacy of a nonviolent approach to social change. In a mood of deep pessimism, the Poor People's Campaign was born.

Initially, the campaign's primary goal was to achieve federal legislation that would ensure full employment, establish a guaranteed income, and promote construction of low-income housing. To that end, organizers intended to bring thousands of poor people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds to Washington, D.C., where they would conduct massive civil disobedience demonstrations and disrupt the city until the government acceded to their demands. The campaign would dramatize the urgency of poor people's plight through mass demonstrations and the erection of a tent city within plain sight of the federal government. The campaign, declared King, would highlight the need for a "new turn toward greater economic justice" in a society more concerned with property and profits than with people.

The campaign was set to begin on April 22, 1968. Although the planning stage had been marked by sharp dissension within SCLC's ranks about the wisdom and feasibility of such an effort, King had insisted on pushing ahead with the project, but he interrupted final preparations in order to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking sanitation workers. After his assassination there on April 4, the SCLC, now under the untested leadership of the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, decided to press forward with the campaign as a fitting tribute to King's memory.

The first group of travelers to Washington, D.C., arrived on April 28; they were later joined by caravans from Tennessee, New Mexico, Chicago, the Mississippi Delta, and elsewhere. With a permit to house 3,000 people on a fifteen-acre strip of land in West Potomac Park, the construction of Resurrection City began on May 13; its population peaked at 2,500 in late May. From there, organizers led daily sojourns to federal agencies, presenting demands that outlined a predominantly economic agenda.

The highlight of the campaign was Solidarity Day, which drew a crowd of between 50,000 and 100,000 (according to press and police estimates) to the Lincoln Memorial on June 19 for music and speakers, including Coretta Scott King. Rev. Abernathy, in his speech, underscored the need for economic justice and an end to racism. Although he acknowledged that his effort did not match King's, Abernathy believed he had solidified his own position at SCLC's helm and that the campaign had successfully brought together the nation's poor and galvanized grassroots efforts to eradicate poverty.

From the start, however, the campaign was plagued by crisestiming problems, lack of coordination, inadequate resources, poor leadership, the absence of a clearly focused program, and interethnic frictions. Demonstrations at government agencies were spottily attended, and they failed to produce the mass arrests organizers had hoped would mobilize the community and lead to nationwide boycotts. Resurrection City was afflicted by heavy rains that lasted throughout most of the campaign, and it was not the model of nonviolence and interracial harmony that King had envisioned; by June 6 only three hundred residents remained. In addition, internal disputes over direction and goals divided action-oriented militants from more cautious figures such as Bayard Rustin, who opposed the use of civil disobedience.

At the same time, campaigners faced growing hostility from local and national government leaders. Before the Poor People's Campaign had even begun, it had been roundly criticized by President Lyndon B. Johnson and by moderate civil rights leaders such as NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins. Southern congressional leaders had sought to prevent the mass mobilization from taking place, and local media had stirred fears of insurrection if large numbers of poor descended on the city. Black mayor Walter Washington arranged for police training in riot control before the marchers arrived. As the campaign continued through June, the patience of those in power wore increasingly thin; the Justice Department refused a second extension of Resurrection City's permit, and police not only began to respond violently to demonstrators, they launched an unprovoked tear-gas attack on the encampment itself.

On June 19, Rev. Abernathy declared, "Today, Solidarity Day, is not the end of the Poor People's Campaign. In fact, today is really only our beginning." But just five days later, as hundreds of protestors were being arrested at the Capitol grounds, the tent city was surrounded by more than fifteen hundred police, who evacuated and sealed off the camp. Organizers and participants straggled home to continue the struggle. The campaign had not achieved its goals, and its failure helped bring to a close the civil rights era in which Martin Luther King Jr. had been so instrumental.

See also King, Martin Luther, Jr.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Rustin, Bayard; Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Wilkins, Roy

Bibliography

Fager, Charles. Uncertain Resurrection: The Poor People's Washington Campaign. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1969.

Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Morrow, 1986.

Gilbert, Ben W., et al. Ten Blocks from the White House: Anatomy of the Washington Riots of 1968. New York: Praeger, 1968.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community. Boston: Harper & Row, 1967.

McKnight, Gerald. The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor People's Campaign. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1998.

marshall hyatt (1996)
Updated bibliography

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