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.
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
Protect welfare rights
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 Wash