Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to shut down Washington in the spring of 1968. He was organizing what he hoped would be the longest-running protest in the history of the nation's capital.
King called it the Poor People's Campaign. He intended to dramatize the suffering of the nation's poor by bringing them to the capital. Poor people would live together on the National Mall - the long strip of land between the U.S. Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial - and engage in widespread civil disobedience. King wanted to force the federal government to deal with poverty.
In 1967, King spoke frequently about a "new phase" of the civil rights movement. It would focus on economic justice for poor people. While the civil rights movement had won the desegregation of public accommodations and broad new voting rights for black citizens, King said these victories had done little to vanquish one central problem: poverty.
"For King and many others, there's a very depressing realization in 1965 that what they thought would represent victory turns out not really to represent anywhere near the degree of fundamental change that they previously had imagined it would," says David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. So long as black people remained poor, they would never really be free, King declared. He felt it was his job to steer the movement in a new direction.
King predicted that attacking poverty would be much more difficult than earlier civil rights campaigns. On June 25, 1967, King gave a speech at Victory Baptist Church in Los Angeles. "We aren't merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now," he said. "We're struggling to get some money to be able to buy a hamburger or a steak when we get to the counter." The struggle for economic equality would cost a lot more than the fight to defeat Jim Crow segregation.
It didn't cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters. It didn't cost the nation one penny to guarantee the right to vote. The problems that we are facing today will cost the nation billions of dollars.
The rate of poverty in the U.S. was near an all-time low in 1967, at roughly 12 percent, but for African Americans, it was more than double that. Blacks still suffered much higher rates of unemployment, illiteracy and malnourishment than whites. What was needed, King said, was "a radical redistribution of economic and political power."
King's right-wing critics had long been calling him a communist. King knew his demand for the redistribution of wealth would draw their fire. The FBI used King's alleged communist leanings as a pretext for spying on him and his associates. But King said he was not a communist. In a speech he gave on August 16, 1967, King explained why. Addressing the annual convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King said the inspiration for his ideas came not from Marx or Lenin, but from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Poor People's Campaign
In the summer of 1967, African Americans rioted in the poor neighborhoods of Detroit and Newark. King blamed poverty for fueling black anger. He called for a bold plan to help the nation's poor. When President Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty" in 1964, he launched an array of anti-poverty initiatives. But King believed Johnson's "Great Society" programs were being bled dry by the vast sums going to the war in Vietnam.
On July 25, 1967, King fired off a long telegram to Johnson, urging him to get rid of unemployment or risk greater urban unrest. King's telegram had no apparent effect on Johnson. In the fall of 1967, King hit upon a more direct way to pressure the White House and Congress.
The idea came from a young civil rights lawyer, Marian Wright Edelman, who worked with poor people in Mississippi. Edelman had recently taken New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy to Mississippi to meet some of the nation's poorest citizens face to face. Kennedy was deeply affected by those encounters. He told Edelman she ought to bring poor people to Washington so that other government officials could meet them too. When Edelman told this to King, he loved the idea.
King's SCLC staff did not react as favorably. Executive director William Rutherford said the staff was accustomed to working on challenging but discrete civil rights issues, such as getting rural black people to register to vote, or desegregating housing. "The idea of attacking something as vast and amorphous as poverty," Rutherford said, "wasn't very appealing." But after weeks of meetings and vigorous debate within the SCLC, King prevailed. On December 4, 1967, he announced the Poor People's Campaign to the press.
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference will lead waves of the nation's poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C. next spring to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all. We will go there, we will demand to be heard and we will stay until America responds. If this means forcible repression of our movement, we will confront it, for we have done this before. If this means scorn or ridicule, we embrace it, for that is what America's poor now receive. If it means jail, we accept it willingly, for the millions of poor already are imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination. ... In short, we will be petitioning our government for specific reforms and we intend to build militant, nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty.
Read the full text of this press conference.
By the start of 1968, King was traveling widely to gather support for the Poor People's Campaign. He was intent on bringing a broad ethnic and racial mix of people to Washington to demonstrate that poverty was not simply a "Negro" problem. King and his staff reached out to Appalachian whites, Native Americans and Mexicans, among many other groups. Nevertheless, when King talked about poverty, he often spoke of a particular debt America owed black people.
On January 15, 1968, King told his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, "Now I don't know about you, but I'm going to Washington to collect." After being held in slavery for 244 years, King said, African Americans were set free in 1863, "yet they were not given any land to make that freedom meaningful."
[That] was something almost like putting a man in prison and keeping him there for many years and suddenly discovering that he's not guilty of the act for which he was convicted and then going up to the man saying, now you are free. And you don't give him any bus fare to get to town. You don't give him any clothes to put on his back. You don't give him any money to get on his feet in life again. The whole code of jurisprudence would rise up against this and yet, this is what America did to the black man.
Listen to an extended excerpt:
King repeated this speech at mass rallies for the Poor People's Campaign in Birmingham, Alabama and Edwards, Mississippi. But he tried to infuse these rallies with something else: hope. On February 15, 1968, King told his listeners not to despair in the face of setbacks. He talked about Ole Bull, the famous Norwegian violinist, who broke the A string in the middle of a great concert in Paris. "And that's a terrible moment for the A string to break on a violin," King said.
But Ole Bull didn't give up; He merely transposed the composition and finished the concert on three strings. Now let us go on and transpose the composition!
Listen to an extended excerpt:
The way to "transpose the composition," he said, was to go to Washington, D.C. and protest.
As the date grew closer for the start of the Campaign, King vowed that he and others would engage in "militant" civil disobedience. The plan was to disrupt the daily functioning of the capital - for instance, by staging sit-ins at the Department of Agriculture or the Department of the Interior - until Congress and the White House got serious about the concerns of poor people. The longer the federal government delayed, King promised, the more the demonstrators would escalate their protests.
King was careful to emphasize, however, that the civil disobedience he and others carried out would be nonviolent. In all his life as a civil rights leader, King never wavered in his opposition to violence. As he reminded his audience at the annual SCLC convention in August of 1967, using violence to try to change society was not only morally wrong, it almost never worked.
On March 31, 1968, King delivered the last Sunday sermon of his life. He spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.. It was less than a month before he planned to return to the District as the head of the Poor People's Campaign. King spoke about what he called the three evils of American society: racism, poverty and war. He sounded deeply pessimistic about all three. King called American involvement in Vietnam "one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world." Racial injustice, he said, "is still the black man's burden and the white man's shame."
Poverty, King observed, was nothing new. "What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty," he said.
The real question is whether we have the will. In a few weeks some of us are coming to Washington to see if the will is still alive, or if it is alive in this nation. We are coming to Washington in a Poor People's Campaign.
Listen to an extended excerpt:
King never made it back to Washington. He was killed five days after he delivered the sermon at the National Cathedral. King's chosen successor at the SCLC, Ralph Abernathy, was suddenly in charge of carrying out the Poor People's Campaign. On May 14, 1968, more than 3000 activists and poor Americans came from all parts of the country to camp out in Washington. They built a shantytown on the Mall and named it "Resurrection City." They staged nonviolent protests as King had planned. But the event was a disaster. Relentless rains turned Resurrection City into a muddy sinkhole. The protest was largely ignored by Congress and the news media. After nearly six weeks of misery and disarray, the Campaign ended.
The SCLC's William Rutherford later called the Poor People's Campaign the "Little Bighorn" of the civil rights movement, a reference to the disastrous battle that General George Custer fought against northern plains Indians. Since then, journalists and historians have generally agreed that the Campaign was a failure. More recent scholarship, however, suggests that the Campaign did have a lasting impact on hundreds of people who got their first taste of interethnic organizing. As historian Gordon Mantler writes, "Whether they went for months, weeks, or just a day or two, many marchers left Washington enlightened, if not transformed." For many Mexican Americans, Mantler says, the Poor People's Campaign provided crucial contacts and skills that they went on to use in their own liberation movement.
Still, for many of Martin Luther King Jr.'s colleagues and allies, the end of the Poor People's Campaign marked the true end to King's leadership of the civil rights movement. They would have to search for a new way forward without him.
Back to King's Last March.