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Poor People’s Campaign Publicized Poverty In ’68

Marian Wright, then the young director of the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund in Jackson, Miss., made a suggestion to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. regarding a drive for jobs and justice. Later, during a staff retreat of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in November 1967, King announced the Poor People’s Campaign as “middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other,” according to documents in The Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute at Stanford University.

The April 22, 1968, news release announcing the Poor People's Campaign timeline.

Having largely won the war for black America’s civil rights, King looked to advancing economic equality as his next, logical challenge. Plans were well under way for the Poor People’s March on Washington by spring. King had reportedly wept at the sight of barefoot children when he visited Marks, Miss., in March 1968. This small, rural community had the dubious distinction of being America’s poorest town, in the poorest county (Quitman) of the poorest state in America.

“King wanted the Poor People’s Campaign to begin at the end of the world, in Marks, Miss. So, it did,” writes Hilliard Lawrence Lackey in his 2014 book, “Marks, Martin and the Mule Train.” Lackey is a history professor at Jackson State University.

But first King and his SCLC had to sell this movement to the masses. The public simply wasn’t in the market for an examination of poverty, despite a reported 35 million Americans (17.6 percent of the nation) living in families with total incomes less than $4,000 annually. A look at historical data shows the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at a record high of 7,795.30 in January 1966. But by October 1967, it had fallen more than 1,200 points to 6,579.58, where it would languish for much of the next year.

The campaign’s tenets were simple:

  • Feed the hungry

  • Hire the jobless

  • Care for the sick

  • End slums

  • Protect welfare rights

  • Educate children

  • Respect poor people

“We can now see ourselves as the powerless poor trapped within an economically-oriented power structure,” reads SCLC prose from its April 4, 1969, Soul Force newspaper. “We are those men and women with certain inalienable rights, but without the means to express them.” The Southern Christian Leadership Conference noted it stands with “the nation’s poor and disinherited.”

Original SCLC planning materials in the Amistad Research Center archives illustrate the depth of planning and organizing it took to undertake – and pull off - such an endeavor.

“The SCLC ideal is of moving the entire town of Marks, Miss., to Washington. The justification of this move would be to dramatize the conditions of the town,” reads a March 27, 1968, letter from Miss Tut Tate, acting secretary of the Grenada, Miss., SCLC chapter. The letter is housed in Amistad’s Fannie Lou Hamer Papers. “There should be some interpretation of the march for black Mississippians.”

SCLC planning began after King’s announcement at the November retreat. By December 1967, SCLC staff was organizing, recruiting and contacting various support groups. This coalition of the poor included blacks, poor whites, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and American Indians. However, all people with a yen for justice were invited to participate. In preparation for the inevitable confrontations that would occur in public spaces, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference conducted workshops on the philosophy and practice of nonviolent action. The City of Hope shanty town was planned as a place for poor people to sleep, eat and receive education and cultural programming.

The scheduled May 30, 1968, March on Washington sought “massive student participation” in “the real work of nonviolent revolution.

“We need tens of thousands of people to pledge to remain in Washington until Congress meets our demands,” reads one missive from SCLC’s campaign timetable in the Hamer Papers.

When the unthinkable happened on April 4, 1968, SCLC forged ahead heartbroken, yet resolute in the mission. The Rev. Ralph Abernathy, King’s best friend and co-founder, took the reigns. According to SCLC staff-only preparation documents, the campaign would begin on April 29 in Memphis, at the spot where the Rev. King had been assassinated just three and a half weeks earlier. The massive March on Washington from all points of the nation was set for May 30.

According to the James Hargett Papers, initial overwhelming rejection of the march turned to receptivity only after King was assassinated. King had been supporting a sanitation workers strike in Memphis while finalizing preparations for Poor People’s Campaign. Americans were, undoubtedly, finally ready to look at “the reality of poverty in our midst,” the Rev. Hargett, a community activist and civil rights advocate, wrote.

“Poor people have been denied power, and that is why they are poor,” SCLC staff-only pre-march preparation document.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded in 1957 after the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. That boycott was led by Martin Luther King, president, and Abernathy, its vice president and treasurer. The Atlanta-based group was known for its aggressive nonviolent action.

“Part of the routine of America is oppression of poor people. When people understand this, they will also understand why we are going to Washington to demand the basic right to a decent life,” reads an SCLC march preparation document marked “Staff Only.”

“Our society should stop cheating and insulting people who are forced to live on small welfare checks. We are against a capitalistic system where poor people – especially Black people and other minority groups – do not have money for capital and are prevented from getting it... It does not allow poor people to control their own lives.”

A fact sheet titled “The Poor People’s Campaign & You” used sobering statistics to illustrate the poverty problem: 3 million unemployed and nearly 6 million Americans forced to live in substandard homes in the wealthiest nation on earth; the poorest Americans are the 35 million who do not have enough money for a decent life; yet, America spends ten times as much on military power as it does on welfare, earmarking $30 billion a year on the Vietnam War and billions on nuclear research and putting a man on the moon.

A farmer tills his land as the Marks Mule Train leaves Mississippi to join the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Poor People's Campaign in 1968. Photo by Roland L. Freeman.

The tired, the poor and the dispossessed traveled from all points to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. One report in the archives details the nearly-three-week odyssey of one church group because its bus had broken down so many times. From Marks, Miss., the 1,000-mile journey took one month for a caravan of 28 wagons, pulled by 56 mules, according to Lackey, the Jackson State historian. The Marks Mule Train was a centerpiece of the Poor People’s Campaign, especially when it arrived on Juneteenth 1968, parading down Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Which is better? Send man to moon or feed him on Earth?”, “Stop the war and feed the poor” and “I have a dream!” read some of the signage affixed to the Mule Train’s wagons.

“In A Land of Plenty, Why Are We Poor?” read one protestor’s sign

The game plan was to make the invisible visible, and at the seat of power in Washington, D.C., “where America had to look at the shame of poverty,” Abernathy later said. With an estimated 10 million Americans starving or malnourished, the PPC’s 51st State of Hunger delegation made the rounds on Capitol Hill and to both major national party conventions.

On Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968, Coretta Scott King kicked off the march by leading thousands of women in the first wave of demonstrators. The next day Resurrection City, a temporary settlement of tents and shacks, was built by participants who would live there during the action. Midway through the campaign, however, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) was assassinated in Los Angeles while campaigning for his party’s presidential nomination. Ethel Kennedy, his wife, had attended the Mother’s Day opening of Resurrection City. Out of respect for the Poor People’s Campaign, Kennedy’s funeral procession passed through the encampment.

A commemorative booklet of the PPC's Resurrection City encampment, which housed 2,500 people.

Over six weeks an estimated 2,500 mostly-poor and underserved men, women and children lived on 16 acres of flood-prone land, which was frequently ankle-deep in mud, in barracks-style quarters near the Lincoln Memorial. Essentially, camping out in D.C.’s steamy late-spring temperatures. Hosea Williams, who was in charge of the campaign’s direct action program, reportedly drew loud applause when he said “everybody is running around worried about Resurrection City when many of the people here are living better than they ever lived in their lives,” according to New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell on June 3, 1968.

During the day, Abernathy and other SCLC leaders took Resurrection City residents to visit congressional and other federal government offices to advocate for “at least jobs or income for all.”

“The poor man is the one-dimensional man, the man who cannot choose the work most suited to his character and ability, the man who cannot feel the pleasure of supporting his family,” wrote the SCLC in the campaign’s Statement of Purpose in 1968.

By the time Resurrection City was shut down, on June 24, 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign had succeeded in mostly trivial ways, due to congressional inaction on the campaign’s demands. According to the King Research & Education Institute, 200 counties were qualified for free surplus food distribution and several federal agencies promised to hire the poor to help run aid programs. Abernathy felt these concessions were insufficient.

The campaign’s unmet demands included a massive job and job-training program; a guaranteed income for those unable to work; national welfare rights and standards; enforcement of civil rights laws; bargaining rights for farm workers; Indian rights on and off of reservations; land reform; expansion of the poverty program and return of its control to poor people; greater housing expenditures for the poor; special education programs; decent health care for all; free food stamps (people with no money can’t buy the stamps); and an end to racism in farm programs.

The Department of the Interior forced closure of Resurrection City after the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s park permit had expired. Questions also arose about whether the $5,000 bond the group had earlier posted to use the park would be adequate for the expense of the massive project.

Still, the encampment was cleared of all occupants in less than 90 minutes, according to a New York Times article the next day. Shortly before that, however, Abernathy and 223 marchers from Resurrection City were arrested during a “mild-mannered act of civil disobedience” at the foot of Capitol Hill. The front-page report noted that 119 others were arrested at Resurrection City when the campsite closed at 10:40 a.m. The charge: “Camping without a permit.”

That night, Mayor Walter Washington declared a State of Emergency and issued a 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. curfew, due to disturbances in the city. Nevertheless, “a feeling of good riddance was shared by leaders of the campaign and the police,” Joseph Loftus reported in a second Times article on June 25, 1968.

“Resurrection City achieved symbolic status but had become unmanageable as a practical venture,” Loftus wrote. It is unclear if a move to preserve the huts and ship them to 40 large cities to stand as symbols of the ’68 campaign ever came to fruition.

“We came as builders...To demonstrate that we, too, could dream,” one unidentified young man said in “This Was Resurrection City,” a post-march commemorative booklet.

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