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The Poor People's Campaign

Culture | August 25, 2021

Martin Luther King marching to help the poor. Source: (Pinterest).

On January 8, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the nation in the State of the Union Address, proposing legislation to help combat poverty in America. The poverty rate at that point was around 19 percent. Thus began Johnson’s War on Poverty, embodying his belief that "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it". While there were 40 programs established to combat poverty after the speech and the subsequent passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, people were angry that this “war” was not fought or even fully funded, in part because of the distractions posed by the Vietnam War.

The Poor People’s Campaign began as a reaction to this. This diverse coalition comprised of white, Latino, Indigenous, and Black Americans from all over the country was the creation of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The leaders of the campaign decided that holding a one-day demonstration was not as effective as camping out on the National Mall. 

Demonstrators participating in the Poor People's March on Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D.C., June 1968. Source: (Wikipedia).

The Beginnings Of The Campaign

King started thinking about taking the poor to Washington by at least October 1966. At the end of his 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said, "We have moved from the era of civil rights to an era of human rights." King’s goal was to bring the poor to Washington to make an impact on government in a nonviolent way. As he said, “We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, 'We are here; we are poor; we don't have any money; you have made us this way ... and we've come to stay until you do something about it.'” Senator Robert F. Kennedy, supported the idea, encouraging them to bring the impoverished to D.C. in order to “make hunger and poverty visible”. 

Source: (Wikipedia).

Before Resurrection City

The campaign was announced on December 4, 1967, and in January, the SCLC distributed an “economic fact sheet” to explain its necessity. In February, King went to Washington to meet with activists and begin working on resources to support the campaign. It was set to begin on May 2. As the date approached, King visited a number of cities to garner support. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated, but planning for the Campaign continued, although it was overshadowed by his death.

The Campaign started by asking the government to make poverty a priority and to pass a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included more lower-income housing, a commitment to full employment, and a guaranteed annual income measure. The demonstrators would eventually come from cities across all regions of the country and to become residents of “Resurrection City,” a tent city that stretched across 15 acres near the Lincoln Memorial and Washington monument. They planned to remain there until the government committed to anti-poverty measures.

Source: (AP News).

Recruiting Participants

In order to find participants, the SCLC trained marshals, who then returned to their hometowns to recruit people, raise funds, and find support from organizations. In keeping with King’s philosophy of nonviolence, participants had to sign an agreement and obey the marshals.

It wasn’t just the poor who marched, but members of the middle class also participated, making sure to deemphasize their socioeconomic status. The march brought together people from multiple poor minorities, including white coal miners, Native Americans, and Puerto Rican activists. In addition to the SCLC, other groups partnered to make the campaign possible, including the National Welfare Rights Organization, and the American Friends Service Committee. The National Association of Social Workers agreed to help with childcare, and the American Federation of Teachers offered to set up schools for kids in the camp.

Source: (WTOP).

How The Government Reacted

The government was worried that this was not going to be nonviolent and was worried about the possibility of a violent takeover. The Democratic Senator Russell B. Long suggested that they could burn down the encampment. Richard Nixon, then campaigning for the Presidency, asked Congress to not give in to their demands. The government activated 20,000 soldiers who were prepared for the threat they were worried that the Campaign may pose. The FBI, which had been targeting King for years, also worked to monitor the Campaign and disrupt it, initially asking officials to oppose King because they said he was a communist. With the assassination of King, they changed their focus to the black militants.

After the assassination of King, the SCLC formed the Committee of 100 to lobby for the Poor People’s Campaign prior to the creation of Resurrection City; they began their lobbying on April 29, 1968. Then on May 12, 1968, Coretta Scott King led a two-week protest in Washington to demand the Economic Bill of Rights. During the month of May, caravans began to depart, and they were assisted by the Community Relations Service Division of the Department of Justice; the sole incident of police brutality came in Detroit. By May 21, 1968, “Resurrection City” was established, and even had its own zip code 20013. The group was given a permit but had to agree to limit the size and duration of Resurrection City. Some people chose to live in the Hawthorne School instead of in Resurrection City, and people of diverse backgrounds formed a tight-knit community there.

Source: (Smithsonian).

The End Of The Campaign

The FBI continued its surveillance by pretending to be journalists and paying off black informants. The city itself became a microcosm of the outside world, embodying the characteristics of other cities. They had a university, a psychiatrist, and even a city hall. Over time, conflicts arose, and they had to deal with problems with rain, which produced standing water five inches deep. The number of permanent residents declined as well.

The police fired canisters of tear gas into the city on June 20, and conditions in the city became chaotic. The National Park Service expired on June 23, 1968, and the next day, more than 1,000 officers arrived to clear out the remaining 500 residents, arresting 288 demonstrators. Although the economic bill of rights was not passed, there were some small gains: more money was given for free and reduced lunches and Head Start Programs in Mississippi and Alabama, surplus commodities were sent to the nation’s poorest counties, and food stamps were expanded.

Tags: Martin Luther King Jr. | war on poverty

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Linda Speckhals

Writer

When she’s not out walking her dog, or taking in a baseball game, Linda loves learning about history, science, and philosophy. She will travel wherever the wind may blow, and happily loses herself in a book, whenever she can. At heart, she is a music loving tree-hugger.