This effort attempts to resurrect the Poor People’s Campaign that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. started more than 50 years ago, using King’s legacy of human rights activism to inspire a new chapter in the anti-poverty movement. While King’s campaign has remained largely a footnote in history, as if it did not matter much after its architect died, the crusade against poverty continued, giving rise to the new chapter on display today.
Although only mildly successful in changing policy, the campaign brought thousands of people to Washington who subsequently built relationships with one another — some of which led to other activism — and highlighted poverty as an urgent issue in a nation uncomfortable with class politics. Ultimately, the campaign offered a number of lessons, both positive and negative, about how to develop a coalition across race and ethnic lines to combat poverty — lessons that shaped subsequent activism, including the current campaign.
After King’s assassination, the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy assumed control of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and recommitted it to the anti-poverty campaign as a tribute to his friend and mentor. “No man can fill Dr. King’s shoes,” Abernathy said, but “we must move forward.” The campaign’s organizers strove to fulfill King’s inclusive vision of “an army of the poor,” going well beyond the black-and-white dichotomy that characterized the early freedom struggle. They invited everyone from Chicano and Native American leaders from the West to Puerto Ricans from the Northeast, and poor whites from Appalachia and the Midwest join them in Washington.
They attempted to change the culture surrounding poverty and policy solutions to it. A 59-page booklet showed ways in which poverty was not simply the result of laziness or a depraved culture. Rather, it was rooted in systemic racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.
That meant reforming institutions in ways that sound quite familiar today, aiming to increase access to affordable housing, build a colorblind criminal justice system and end environmental degradation. Some solutions reflected the campaign’s multiracial makeup, such as Chicanos’ specific request to reopen the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War in 1848 and forced many families off their land. Native Americans also sought renewed federal recognition of fishing rights in ancestral waters.
Yet differences over substance, strategy and personality created obstacles. For instance, the African American leaders of SCLC did not always understand Chicano history and how that shaped the issues Chicanos pursued. Embracing a kind of activist hierarchy, Abernathy and others also sometimes viewed the Chicanos, Native Americans and Puerto Ricans present as junior partners in the endeavor.
And it remained difficult to get past the campaign’s charismatic figure, even in death. Many activists believed that no one but King could build the national coalition necessary to fight poverty in a divided nation. Although Abernathy and Chicano movement leaders such as Reies Tijerina and Corky Gonzales tried, none could bring individuals together as King had been able to do.
But if one looks from a broader lens, the campaign was anything but a failure.
Both the legacy and lessons learned from this original Poor People’s Campaign pervade the anti-poverty movement today. Organizers have foregrounded the thousands of people working for change nationwide, not just charismatic leaders like Barber. They recognize that building coalitions is difficult and requires remarkable time and energy to develop relationships among a diverse array of activists.
Much like in 1968, organizers have reached out to leaders of all faiths, to civil rights and immigrant rights groups and to organizations explicitly focused on economic justice, such as the Fight for $15 group, which advocates for a living wage. And today, they, too, emphasize broadening Americans’ understanding of poverty — linking, for instance, mass incarceration, tainted water and other ecological challenges and the loss of voting rights to persistent poverty and inequality in the nation.
In this new phase of the Poor People’s Campaign, however, activists will focus less on national solutions like the 1960s Great Society programs, and more on organizing at the state level. Although there will be a significant presence in the nation’s capital, the most important work might be in lobbying the so-called laboratories of democracy in state capitals such as Nashville, Lansing and Albany to embrace anti-poverty policies. Rather than creating and maintaining a Resurrection City on the Mall — as culturally rich as that space was — activists will instead spend their energy organizing supporters, meeting with officials and working on policy solutions, mostly in their home towns and state capitals.
If the current crusade does not achieve immediate policy success, much of the news media most likely will dismiss the campaign and move on. That is certainly what happened in 1968. Yet, in the weeks and months afterward, it became clear that the campaign had made some difference, especially in terms of building relationships among individual participants, connecting members of a burgeoning Chicano movement with one another and enhancing federal anti-hunger policies through surplus commodities, cheaper food stamps and even changes to welfare. Women, in particular, found a valuable space to discuss how poverty affected them disproportionately, whether it was Coretta Scott King, native leader Martha Grass or Chicana activist Maria Varela.
Will the new Poor People’s Campaign have a similar effect? Maybe. It certainly should command our attention — not just during the 40 days of action, but in the weeks and months after the last rally is held.