This book is about the last days of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and one of King’s major projects, which was carried forward by his successors—the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) of 1968. This campaign has often been undervalued and misunderstood, and my main aim here is to revalue and reflect on that initiative. I look at it in part as an educational exercise: the campaign was planned and worked out not only to develop a new form of social protest but also as an instrument for the participants to expand their social knowledge and understanding. With that focus, the importance of the campaign is considerably more obvious.
In August 1967, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund attorney Marian Wright (she married in 1968 and is best known as Marian Wright Edelman, which is the name I use in this book) met with Senator Robert F. Kennedy at his home in Hickory Hill, Virginia. An impressive figure, Edelman was the first black woman admitted to the Mississippi bar. She was counsel to the Child Development Group of Mississippi (CDGM), which served thirteen thousand children and created three thousand jobs free of the plantation system in the South.1 Her encounter with Robert Kennedy that day would have profound implications for the civil rights movement and for Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in particular. Edelman recalled it was a “gorgeous day” with everyone lounging about the pool.2 The contrast between their pleasant surroundings at Hickory Hill and the focus of some of their discussions could not have been starker. Amid their “small chat” on what was going on across America, Edelman and Kennedy focused on the issue of poverty and how “everybody” was being distracted by the Vietnam War.3
One brief exchange defined their meeting and helped to set in motion a series of events leading to what became the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. On hearing that Edelman was due to call on King in Atlanta, Robert Kennedy suggested she encourage him to bring poor people to Washington. Kennedy believed Congress would be willing to make concessions by enacting legislation against poverty in order to make the poor go away again. He undoubtedly also had broader political objectives in mind. Kennedy advised Edelman to “get in President Lyndon Johnson’s face, bring them [the poor] and make them visible.”4 In the weeks and months prior to their discussion, Kennedy had established himself as one of the Democratic Party’s leading critics of the domestic and foreign policies of President Johnson. He had grown increasingly unhappy with Johnson’s approaches to urban unrest, poverty, and the war in Vietnam. Kennedy was also aware that Dr. King had intensified his own pressure on the federal government to take decisive action against poverty. Robert Kennedy anticipated that the presence of poor people in Washington, D.C., would expose the limitations of Johnson’s War on Poverty and thereby embarrass the president.
Marian Wright Edelman was close to both Dr. King and Senator Kennedy. She was grateful for King’s assistance in late 1965 in support of the efforts in Mississippi to continue funding for the CDGM, the largest multicounty Head Start program in America. Conservative politicians in Mississippi were keen to close the CDGM, viewing it as radical and as a Trojan horse designed to help bring about equality of the races in the South. Edelman later observed that Dr. King’s “presence and support [were] invaluable” during a challenging period for her.5 The Johnson administration, wary of offending white sensibilities in the South, regarded King as an “outside agitator” for getting involved in Mississippi on Edelman’s behalf.6 Edelman was also instrumental in helping Robert Kennedy to understand how poverty and its various manifestations, such as low-quality education, inadequate housing, unemployment, and an unfair welfare system, had blighted lives in the United States. At her request, Kennedy had visited Mississippi in April 1967 just a few months before their meeting at Hickory Hill. In the company of fellow members of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Manpower and Poverty, Robert Kennedy came to the Mississippi Delta to investigate the impact of Johnson’s War on Poverty programs. The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) was up for reauthorization during this period. In a hostile political climate, in which spending associated with the War on Poverty was falling out of favor in Washington and with the public generally, everything was potentially up for grabs.
Kennedy attracted significant media attention as the star of the delegation to Mississippi, which helped to shine a light on the work of the committee as it uncovered the realities of life for the poorest of the poor in the richest nation on earth. The evidence presented to the subcommittee in Mississippi personalized the plight of poverty-stricken children, mothers, and families. Testimony from Edelman and impoverished people from the Delta placed America and its social policies on trial. In support of a campaign against poverty, the SCLC later cited evidence from the government field hearings conducted by Kennedy and others and claimed that this revealed poverty to be no less than “a national disgrace” with “chronic hunger and malnutrition” to be found in every part of the United States.7
Marian Wright Edelman was receptive to Robert Kennedy’s idea of a campaign in Washington led by the poor and agreed to raise it with Dr. King in Atlanta. She met with King soon after her discussion with Kennedy. Four unemployed men from the Mississippi Delta accompanied Edelman to the meeting in Atlanta.8 Their presence set the tone for the campaign against poverty to come. Each of these family men were unemployed due to well-off farmers leaving their lands fallow in order to claim government subsidies. Their authentic voices were representative of thousands of others who would soon answer the call from Dr. King to set up camp in Washington for the PPC in 1968. Marian Wright Edelman herself would act as counsel and congressional liaison officer for the campaign.
Edelman recalled that Dr. King at first seemed depressed.9 A number of factors could explain his state of mind in the summer of 1967, including his despair over the urban riots, which had increasingly become a feature of American life. There were also the threats to both his hopes for full integration of the races and his advocacy of nonviolence from the more strident voices of Black Power. The urban riots and the rise of Black Power had helped to intensify a political and public backlash against the civil rights movement. In addition, King was by now aware of the limitations of the landmark civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 and the failure of the movement to achieve equality for all in America. The political fallout from King’s public opposition to the Vietnam War had taken its toll on his resolve and on his spirit as well. With so many different problems weighing on his mind, King seemed unsure as to where he might turn next.10 Given his apparent demeanor as the meeting began, Edelman could not have anticipated how enthusiastically Dr. King would embrace the Kennedy proposal. On hearing about the suggestion to organize a campaign in Washington, King seemed transformed. Edelman wrote that “Dr. King’s eyes lit up and he called me an angel sent by God, thus, the idea of a Poor People’s Campaign, for which I was honored to serve as a messenger, was born.”11
King was convinced that this was the way forward and committed himself to a plan to hold nonviolent protests in Washington against poverty. Within months, he began to put together a multiracial coalition of the poor, including blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans, to go to the nation’s capital. This became the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. Coretta Scott King later said of her husband, “The prospect of establishing a rainbow coalition that could eventually see beyond racism and challenge the systems that demeaned all persons, excited Martin.”12 Unlike previous civil rights campaigns, which often sought a single piece of legislation, the PPC’s demands were for the development by the federal government of new costly economic and social policies.13
The demands eventually covered a range of civil rights and human rights issues. Housing, education, welfare, and jobs were all included in the requests to Congress. More specific demands were also made on a range of issues, reflecting both the particular and shared needs of the various racial and cultural groups of poor people involved in the campaign. Native Americans, for example, were concerned with fishing rights, land rights, and better education and called in particular for compliance with the legal treaties between tribes and the U.S. government, observing that “citizenship is not something you sell for trinkets, blankets and beads.”14 Mexican Americans were interested in economic questions and land issues. The main PPC demand was for an Economic Bill of Rights to apply to every citizen. It included calls for a meaningful guaranteed job with a livable wage, a secure income, the ability to access land for economic reasons, access to capital for the less well-off, and citizens to have a larger role in government.
Tragedy was around the corner, however. In early 1968, with planning for the Washington campaign under way, King’s attention was directed to a black sanitation worker strike for better pay, union recognition, and decent working conditions in Memphis, Tennessee. Many in King’s SCLC inner circle were opposed to his involvement in Memphis, viewing it as a distraction from the main PPC event. King maintained that Memphis was about poor people and therefore represented the Washington campaign in microcosm. If he did not help the low-paid sanitation workers, there was no point in continuing with plans for the PPC. The SCLC leader was committed to the cause of the most vulnerable in society and gave his full support to the Memphis struggle. His assassination in Memphis on April 4, the day after he delivered a memorable speech, robbed Dr. King of the chance to lead the poor to the nation’s capital. His loss was felt across the globe yet at the same time strengthened the resolve of PPC organizers and participants to continue with his initiative. Just over one month later, a multiracial group of around six thousand poor people made final preparations to travel to Washington, D.C., from across the United States. They came to fulfill King’s dream to end poverty in America.
On May 13, 1968, King’s successor as president of the SCLC, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, officially opened the temporary encampment, which was called Resurrection City and was intended to house thousands of poor people while they were demonstrating against poverty across Washington. In the spirit of nonviolence, the residents of the camp came armed only with a series of demands for the federal government. Decades before the modern Occupy movement similarly set up camps to protest global poverty and inequality, the PPC participants constructed wooden huts and tents on the Mall, a traditional site of protest and a center of democracy. Resurrection City was situated at the heart of the great Washington landmarks and in the symbolic shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. The camp had a basic infrastructure, and attempts were made to incorporate many of the facilities found in larger permanent urban centers. It provided the normal city functions of maintenance, sanitation, supplies, information (scheduling, communications, and mail), security (police, fire protection), transportation, health services, food services, childcare, and recreation. The city was divided into communities, neighborhoods, and blocks. It also had a city hall, a healthcare center, and, in recognition of the importance given to learning, a Poor People’s University (PPU), Freedom Schools, and a library.
Resurrection City was a short-lived experiment. It was forcibly evacuated and torn down by D.C. authorities beginning on June 24, 1968, just six weeks after it was declared open.15 Since then, the PPC has been dismissed by the majority of historians as “an almost perfect failure,” which was “poorly timed, poorly organized and poorly led.”16 Frady, for example, argued that Resurrection City’s problem as a strategy for continuing the movement after King’s death was that “it was not movement but emblem, static and so passive.”17 Elements in the press at the time presented an image of the campaign as chaotic and disorganized. U.S. News and World Report described the camp as a place from which “nothing but further virulence and infection can issue.”18 This image has endured. The PPC has invariably been regarded as a footnote in the story of the civil rights movement.
Yet there is another side to the story, which deserves to be heard. Compared to other social movements before 1968 and arguably since, the national and racial reach of the PPC was unique. It can be contrasted, for example, with the lack of racial diversity at the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999.19 The temporary community of Resurrection City was particularly important in that it afforded the pedagogical space for poor people of different races and cultural backgrounds to come together in ways unparalleled in U.S. history until this point. Although there were some problems with its organization, Resurrection City was still viewed as “a useful model of community development in action,” and “there was, in some areas, a sense of place and participation seldom seen in slums or public housing.”20 One PPC activist maintained that its best achievement was to bring together different races and religions under one tent.21 Although tensions and conflict were in evidence within and between the various groups in Resurrection City, many of the residents worked and learned together in a spirit of solidarity.
Impoverished people came to Resurrection City in May 1968 from different points in the nation by means of nine caravans, dubbed “Freedom Roads.” Some traveled by bus and train, and others even in carts pulled by mules, a universal symbol of poverty. For many of them this was the first time they had left their own counties. Their journeys to Washington were long and taxing, but they were filled with hope that they might effect change. They were part of something both historic and significant, and their unique contributions to the enduring struggles of low-income people against poverty and inequality should be acknowledged. Those who traveled to Washington included Native Americans from reservations where the life expectancy, according to the SCLC, was only forty-three and a half years and who were six times more likely to die from tuberculosis and more than forty thousand times more likely to catch severe pneumonia than other citizens were. Also in Resurrection City were white families from mill towns who were now unemployed after twenty years of work as well as those regarded as “white trash,” who scrounged in garbage cans. Black people—who made up over a quarter of the Americans living in poverty but constituted just over 10 percent of the population—came from the South, North, and West to demand jobs, decent housing, and education.22 Mexican Americans who came to Washington charged that “poverty and city living under the Anglos’ colonial system” had “castrated their culture, consciousness of heritage, and language.”23 They demanded decent living accommodations, quality education, recognition of Spanish as a first language in schools, a school curriculum reflecting their cultural heritage, and the return of all stolen “property,” including minerals, water, and timber and grazing rights.24
The people who traveled to Washington in May–June 1968 included in their ranks 101-year-old Mrs. Mattie Grinnell (Mandan). Her participation in the occupation of space in the nation’s capital showed that even the oldest people were motivated by Dr. King to try to make a difference in the life conditions of the poor. Although late in life, she was determined to turn things around for herself and for others. Grinnell explained to a Senate hearing in Washington that she had made the journey from her reservation in North Dakota to tell President Johnson that she received no help back home. She reflected on a past when things had been better, when her people could live off the land. Mrs. Grinnell alleged that Native American people were starving on the reservation. They received only scraps to eat such as cornmeal, oats, and rice, often infested with worms.
Mrs. Myrtle Brown, an unemployed mother of five from Marks, Mississippi, the poorest town in the poorest state in America, told the same Senate hearing that she joined the campaign on the day Dr. King visited her community to promote the initiative. Another woman from Mississippi said she came to Washington to put right her situation: she had worked all her life, yet her family was “starving to death.” She had no home fit to live in, and she stayed up all night holding a light over her children to keep the roaches away while they slept.25
Peggy, a white grandmother from Alabama, described in the press as a “hillbilly,” came to Resurrection City with her children and grandchildren. She bonded in the camp with Ray, a young black man who had lived with his wife and children in ghettos in the North, the South, and Washington, D.C. Ray had a simple but evocative sign hanging outside his hut: “We have lived in many houses. This is our first home. Welcome.”26
The people who came to Washington in 1968 deserve better from history than to have the PPC dismissed as being of little consequence. Many of them worked together in solidarity during the preparations for the PPC in their home communities, on the road to Washington, and in Resurrection City itself. They learned about the causes of poverty and how they might change their root condition. Some of them took part in various forms of protest and in workshops, informal discussions, Freedom Schools, and cultural activities. Regularly, hundreds set off for government departments and Congress to lobby and demonstrate in support of their demands for legislation to end poverty. All who came were making a statement about the unacceptability of poverty in America. Some of the poor stayed for only a few days before leaving for home. But in remarkable displays of fortitude and resilience, other residents of Resurrection City remained and endured incessant rain and attempts by the forces of the state to make them go away again. And we are reminded, “something wonderful happens to people when they are somehow determining their own destiny and beginning to control and change their real conditions.”27
One of the greatest injustices in failing to recognize the merits of the PPC is that this neglect also does a disservice to Dr. King’s legacy. The PPC would not have been possible without his leadership, his vision to end economic injustice, and his determination to hold America to account for its treatment of the poor of all races. He devoted the last few months of his life to drive the idea forward, worked intensively to recruit leaders and poor people from a variety of racial groups, and provided the inspiration for large numbers of the participants even after his death. The campaign represents the best example of his career-long affinity with the most marginalized people in society. Although Dr. King did not live to see the realization of his plan to unite the poor across racial, gender, age, ethnic, and regional differences, his spirit was with many of those who made the journey to the nation’s capital.
King’s vision for the PPC was radical and expansive. He referred to the campaign not in terms of civil rights, but as a “human rights struggle.” He had argued from 1966 that the civil rights movement now needed to grapple with “basic class issues between the privileged and the underprivileged.” This required no less than the “restructuring of the architecture of American society,” a phrase he uttered repeatedly in the final years of his life.28 The campaign offered an alternative to the dominant politics of the state and a rejection of the postwar liberal consensus.
King’s stance on economic injustice and the immorality of the Vietnam conflict attracted the feverish attention of the FBI under the leadership of Director J. Edgar Hoover, as well as of the police. Amid the Cold War, urban unrest, black militancy, a polarized political climate, a backlash against the civil rights movement and the poor people whose interests it represented, and opposition to the Vietnam War and to the counterculture movement, King’s rhetoric on economic injustice, including references to the need for a redistribution of the nation’s wealth, saw him denounced as a communist.29 In a political and social context hostile to the “great unwashed” arriving in Washington, Senator John Stennis of Mississippi spoke for many political elites in calling for the poor to be blockaded.30 Even liberal allies of the SCLC leader cut King loose, especially after his public condemnations of the Vietnam War.
My examination of the PPC reveals Dr. King to be revolutionary in his aspirations for America. Yet many still think of him in a “narrow sense as a civil rights rather than a human rights leader.”31 Attempts have even been made to “dilute and sanitize much of what King represented.”32 Some scholars have argued, for example, that many on the Left have a false idea of King, “portraying him as a well-meaning if naïve liberal … finally coming to see … that some variant of socialism might be necessary.”33 The relative absence in civil rights literature of the PPC and King’s commitment to the issues it represented can be compared, for example, to the iconic status accorded to his speech in August 1963 during the March on Washington. Ironically, that was an event, in common with the PPC, concerned with demands for jobs and economic justice.
In this book I show that Dr. King’s journey toward a campaign against poverty did not begin at his meeting with Marian Wright Edelman in 1967. The idea marked a logical development in his career and in his thinking; in addition, it fit the needs of the time when Robert Kennedy suggested it. Social justice and economic justice had long been central to King’s ministry.34 His educational background highlights some of the early forces that helped to shape him as a civil rights and human rights leader who would throw his lot in with the poor. In 1944, King followed the example of his grandfather and father in enrolling at Morehouse College in Atlanta; he was only fifteen years old. Morehouse has deep roots in the black Baptist tradition. Inherent in this mission is the “belief that alumni will become leaders and help deliver those who are oppressed.”35 The intellectual influences he encountered at Morehouse remained with King throughout his life. He read Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience,” an experience he described as his first intellectual contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Civil disobedience, a refusal to cooperate with an evil system, fascinated him and came to characterize his career, including plans for the Poor People’s Campaign beginning in 1967. King became convinced that noncooperation with evil was as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good.36 He learned during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955–1956 from Bayard Rustin, an authority on Gandhian methods of nonviolence, to see clearly that the philosophy, strategy, and tactics of nonviolence could fashion a transformative revolutionary movement.37 Gandhi’s struggle in India against British imperialism provided an example for King on how to confront the power of “those who resisted progress.”38
While Gandhi provided the methods, King’s religious beliefs gave him the spirit and motivation.39 Social Gospel thinkers, including Walter Rauschen-busch, provided King with the theological basis for his social concerns. Morehouse College professor George Kelsey encouraged King to bridge the gap between religious and secular ideas by emphasizing the “Christian gospel as the basis for social reform.”40 King learned this lesson well; he later wrote that “the church must develop a social action program and take a stand wherever economic and social injustice exists.”41 The opportunity at Morehouse to learn about the ideas of the Social Gospel laid the groundwork for further reflections in King’s own “intellectual quest for a method to eliminate social evil.”42 In his penultimate year at Morehouse, King realized that he wanted to join the ministry and to follow the examples of his father and grandfather. In 1960, he observed, “Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them, is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”43
I argue that Dr. King was consciously working toward the concept of the Poor People’s Campaign from at least 1964 and more intensively from 1966. Although the suggestion to mount such an effort came from Senator Robert Kennedy in 1967, King could claim ownership of the idea. In a prophetic article published in 1964, Dr. King called for a multiracial effort to tackle unemployment, a “grand alliance” of black and white, which should consist of the vast majority of each group.44 He claimed that the need for such an effort was becoming more urgent because of societal changes pushing people into “permanent uselessness and hopeless impoverishment.”45 King’s concerns were expressed during a period of intensive reform in the United States. The civil rights movement achieved two major pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In addition to the progress made possible by this legislation, President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, announced in January 1964, encouraged many civil rights leaders to hope that full equality, including economic justice for all American citizens, was within reach. While King had reservations about the scope of the War on Poverty, he remained cautiously optimistic from 1964 to 1965 that the Johnson initiatives would improve the condition of poor people.
Although Johnson’s roots were in the segregated South, the new president’s commitment to tackling poverty seemed sincere. Johnson’s upbringing in poverty-stricken rural Texas, his personal insights into the role of government in tackling unemployment during the New Deal, and the fact he now enjoyed the power he had worked for all his life—all motivated the president to try to address the issue of poverty in America. The seeds of the War on Poverty can arguably be found in the New Frontier agendas of Johnson’s predecessor, President John F. Kennedy. However, Johnson deserves great credit for his abilities to overcome opposition to his plans in Congress. Demonstrating the renowned “Johnson treatment,” he took the case to elected representatives, cajoling, persuading, threatening, and promising in equal measure to win the support of those sympathetic to his cause as well as those implacably opposed to progressive legislation.
Spending on fighting poverty by 1964 was made possible by low unemployment levels and increasing productivity. While many benefited from economic expansion, it is estimated that at the dawn of the 1960s 20 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line.46 Two books, John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society and Michael Harrington’s The Other America, revealed that millions had missed out during a period of assumed general prosperity for America. Harrington later served on King’s research committee that provided much of the data underpinning arguments in favor of a national campaign against poverty. King asked him to write an overview plan for the PPC. Both Harrington and King agreed on the necessity to change the income structure of U.S. society through a redistribution of wealth.47 The rediscovery of poverty amid assumed abundance provoked much debate and controversy among politicians and academics. The War on Poverty initiative brought the issue of economic injustice firmly onto the national agenda and incorporated civil rights and tax cuts into an overall plan of action. President Johnson believed his ideas would provide social justice, tackle urban conditions including inadequate housing and education, further deliver on the goals of the civil rights movement, and show the world, in the context of the Cold War, that capitalism was a superior system to communism.
The Johnson poverty plans initially scored well with King and more broadly with eastern liberals. Johnson brought business on board, cultivated industry, and argued that all could benefit from his initiatives. To win over middle-class Americans to his ideas and overcome the stereotype of the “unworthy poor,” the president aspired to end dependence on welfare and bring poor people into the fold by making them taxpayers rather than tax eaters, providing a hand up, not a handout. In May 1964, Johnson introduced the notion of the Great Society, a phrase inspired in part by Walter Lippmann’s book The Good Society. The goals expressed in the Great Society speech, crafted by Richard Goodwin, were far-reaching, expansive, and ambitious. President Johnson aspired to promote the quality as well as the quantity of American life, rejecting crass materialism and national wealth as ends in themselves. Johnson also viewed the War on Poverty and the Great Society as part of a broader solution to civil rights issues with the aim of racial harmony.48
The buoyant economy and his landslide presidential election win in 1964 over right-wing Republican Barry Goldwater made all things possible in President Johnson’s estimation. The Johnson election mandate also encouraged King to believe that the federal government would now lead the way in tackling poverty and inequality. He shared with many others in the movement a belief that government could act as an agent of positive change. Eighty-three percent of black people polled in 1963 believed the federal government was helpful to them, although they did not express the same confidence in state and local governments.49 High points of the War on Poverty included Medicare, Medicaid, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, all in 1965. Head Start provided education, hot meals, and medical care for disadvantaged preschool children; it passed despite conservative resistance in Congress, which labeled it as a socialist attempt to take control away from parents. Marian Wright Edelman, of course, felt the brunt of this conservative onslaught in her work with the Child Development Group of Mississippi. Also in 1965, Johnson signed the Higher Education Act into law at his old teacher training college, a symbolic act of great significance for the president. He also tried to address the negative impacts of rapid urbanization, an issue soon to vex Dr. King as the shortfalls of the War on Poverty became more evident. In urban affairs, various housing acts began the process of slum clearance, and the Demonstration Cities Act of 1966 promoted better coordination of public facility construction projects in cities. Other pieces of legislation tackled the nationalization of commercial power and provided protection for the environment, consumers, and workers. Although King pointed to the limitations of the War on Poverty, the initiative achieved some success. Unemployment for nonwhite people decreased from 12 percent to 6 percent between 1961 and 1969; black poverty fell between 1959 and 1974 from 55 percent to 30 percent.50
No sooner was the ink dry at the official signing of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965 than riots broke out in the poor, mainly black community of Watts in Los Angeles. In the wake of the disturbances, President Johnson felt let down that his efforts to resolve race and poverty issues had not prevented urban unrest. A shocked King visited Watts to see the devastation for himself and to hear firsthand accounts from the residents on what had occurred and why. Watts set King on the path to the Poor People’s Campaign. All the evidence suggested to the SCLC leader that conditions in housing, unemployment, and education were, if anything, worsening despite the War on Poverty initiatives. His initial confidence in the possibilities offered by the Johnson legislative program gradually dissipated. King became increasingly concerned that the War on Poverty did not include policies to bring about wealth redistribution. Johnson believed instead that a growing economy would allow everyone to rise up and improve their condition in life. King’s relationship with the president became fraught, and they were keeping each other at arm’s length by mid-1966.
Continuing urban unrest during 1965 helped Dr. King to see ever more clearly that poverty was a class issue that transcended race. He placed jobs, housing, and education at the center of a new ambitious urban agenda. In January 1966, King began an effort to establish his own nonviolent movement in the North, in the Chicago slums. He aspired to create an “open city” in Chicago. He planned to use direct action and nonviolence, to mobilize both black and white people to end the situation of slum tenements, to enforce open housing policies, and to provide effective access to job opportunities.51 He believed that through organized protest he could move poor black people from being “passive” subjects to “active” citizens. With public opinion turning against the movement in part due to urban uprisings, King’s presence was antagonistic to whites in Chicago, who responded to the protests with a backlash of noncooperation, violence, and intimidation. He described racism in that city as the worst he had ever experienced. He surmised that the powerlessness of poor people in ghetto areas explained their plight. What turned out to be an inconclusive campaign in Chicago to end the slums merely encouraged King to intensify his efforts to end economic injustice.
In an article for Ebony magazine in October 1966, more than one year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, King reflected on the journey traveled and the road ahead. He warned that the movement was now approaching areas where “the voice of the Constitution” was not clear, noting that activists had “left the realm of constitutional rights and were entering the arena of human rights.”52 King appreciated that legislation had brought down segregation signs and in theory had assured the right to vote. However, there remained no “such assurance of the right to adequate housing, or the right to an adequate income.”53 He wrote in the same article of the moral right of every citizen to decent housing, an adequate education, and enough money to provide for one’s family.
Dr. King became ever more radical in his rhetoric against economic injustice from 1966 through 1968. He was uncompromising; his words were far-reaching in their implications for the administration of President Johnson and for the nation. He also focused his fire on the escalating Vietnam War. King attacked the war economy and the immorality of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. He argued that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies to address poverty as long as Vietnam continued to draw men, skills, and money like “some demoniacal suction tube.”54 The slums and Vietnam became one in his thinking. He called for human rights for all; opposed poverty, racism, and imperialism; and viewed inequality not only in American but also in global terms. King now realized that the war was an enemy of poor people, and he had no choice other than to speak out and “tell the truth.”55
In May 1967, just a few months before his meeting with Edelman, Dr. King told the SCLC staff that “we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.”56 One month later, King began a punishing schedule to publicize his new book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? The book provided a useful summary of his reflections on what had been a tumultuous and exhausting few years with many facets. He outlined his deep-rooted concerns about America and the challenges faced by the civil rights movement in the new phase beyond the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These included an increasing white backlash against the movement fueled by sentiment that social programs rewarded rioters and looters. King regretted also the fractures and divisions within the civil rights movement itself. This included the rise of Black Power, which saw some established leaders “cast aside,” for example, John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, symbolizing a radical change of tactics, including a rejection of nonviolence. Black militancy threatened the already crumbling alliance between the civil rights movement and its white liberal supporters. The media portrayed supporters of Black Power as violent and antiwhite. As a slogan, it evoked whites’ fears of a race war and reignited the flames still smoldering in the public memory of the 1959 television documentary by Mike Wallace and Louis Lomax on the Nation of Islam called The Hate That Hate Produced. The emergence of black militants Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown in 1966 had far-reaching consequences. They represented change in the makeup of civil rights activism and undermined coalitions that President Kennedy and President Johnson had worked on for years.57 It became impossible to speak of one civil rights movement because different objectives and different methodologies came to the fore.
King’s decision to take up the proposal from Robert Kennedy’s emissary Marian Wright Edelman—to organize a campaign of the poor in Washington— was in part motivated by his determination to offer young people an alternative to Black Power. He shared the concerns of black militants about conditions in urban centers and their analysis of a racist capitalist system in America. In June 1967, the Justice Department reported disturbances in 110 cities.58 The nation was divided, and a race war seemed possible to some. On July 25, 1967, only one month before Edelman came to see him carrying the message from Kennedy, King sent a telegram to President Johnson outlining his grave concerns about the response of the federal government to yet another summer of urban uprisings. He informed Johnson that “only drastic changes in the life of the poor will provide the kind of order and stability you desire.” King cited recent legislation and cuts in the War on Poverty programs as examples of how the “moral degradation” of Congress had hastened the “destruction of the lives of blacks in the ghettos.” He called on Johnson to use the full powers of his office and follow the example of the New Deal in the 1930s to take radical steps to end the scourge of unemployment. Only substantive measures, he suggested, would end the “turmoil of the ghetto,” which itself represented the “externalization of the black’s inner torment and rage.”59 The measures he demanded would take real form in his plans for the Poor People’s Campaign.
Dr. King became increasingly dissatisfied with the Johnson administration’s responses to the crisis in urban centers. King sympathized with the alienation and frustration felt by many young black people caught in the cycle of poverty, which was the root of the anger being expressed in such dramatic form in the ghettos. He wrote that the limitations of the War on Poverty in terms of everreduced funding, the absence of policies to redistribute wealth, and top-down management merely accentuated the disaffection felt by young people. In the belief that continuing disorder in the cities would further erode the diminishing support for the nonviolent civil rights movement, King observed that young black people “in an irrational burst of rage had sought to say something, but the flames had blackened both themselves and their oppressors.”60 His book Where Do We Go from Here? called for a renewed focus on economic agendas as a response to Black Power and the endemic nature of poverty across the nation. Dr. King shared the view of black militants that power could change conditions for people. He noted, however, that “Power for Poor People” was a much more appropriate slogan than “Black Power.”61 King advised poor people to organize and gain power in three main areas: electoral politics, labor union activism, and economic boycotts. With reference to electoral politics, he urged black people to play their part by voting and by building political alliances. In this way, they might counter the white backlash and political candidates whose “magic” was “achieved with a witches’ brew of bigotry, prejudice, half-truths and whole lies.”62 King argued that a united black vote would deliver quality education, good well-paid jobs, and decent comfortable homes.
In an indication of the destination King was rapidly moving toward, he also more directly set out the case for a national campaign against poverty to involve all races. Looking ahead to what would become the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, Dr. King prophetically wrote that the future of the “deep structural changes we seek will not be found in the decaying political machines, it lies in new alliances of blacks, Puerto Ricans, labor, liberals, certain church and middle-class elements.”63 Finally, King wrote that he regretted that Black Power gave priority to the race question to the detriment of the crucial economic issues facing the poor, who included both black and white. He concluded that little had in fact changed in America. The impulses leading to what amounted to a time of profound crisis in the United States had deep roots. He argued that “White America” did not act in good faith. It was willing to treat black people with a “degree of decency” but not “equality.” Whites may have been horrified by the violence against blacks in the South during the campaigns in Birmingham in 1963 and Selma in 1965, but King argued that they were not prepared to take the final steps. Economic injustice lay at the heart of the matter. He surmised America had “never been truly committed to helping him [the black person] out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.”64 In another reference to a key demand that would underpin the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, King calculated that federal programs involving billions of dollars could solve the economic problems facing poor people.65
The various events and challenges documented in Where Do We Go from Here? highlighted the cumulative stress on King brought about by many struggles. Faced with criticism from all sides, the period 1965–1967 tested his energies and resolve as never before. In the summer of 1967, when he met with Edelman, some of those closest to Dr. King were concerned about his well-being, including his mental health. The second phase of the movement’s struggle for freedom, the “realization of equality,” remained elusive. The high-water mark of civil rights reform, which began with President Kennedy’s public commitment in June 1963 to bring forward a civil rights bill, had passed. King observed that white allies were disappearing, and in a hostile social and political climate whites felt that blacks were greedy in asking for more so soon. Meanwhile, he concluded, black people, especially those in the North, felt cheated.66 King now understood that the War on Poverty was unlikely to end the cycle of poverty experienced by generation after generation in the areas of housing, health, welfare, education, and employment. It was evident to him that poverty was a structural issue. For King, the movement had changed from a struggle for human dignity to a struggle for rights and opportunities.67 America stood at a crossroads; it was time to push forward beyond the gains of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
King announced the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign in December 1967. He described the campaign as a “Satyagraha,” a nonviolent mass movement whose name meant “truth force.”68 In the Cold War context, the PPC’s demands for a redistribution of America’s wealth led to yet a further loss of support for the movement from politicians and many citizens, who believed it challenged fundamental American values and perceived it as an attack on capitalism.69 The flagging of the economy due to spending on the war in Vietnam also increased opposition to King’s demands for massive expenditures to defeat poverty on the grounds they were unaffordable. For King, it was a matter of priorities. The adverse reaction to the campaign arguably further polarized opinions on race, war, and poverty across the nation. King’s campaign planning in early 1968 took place amid a backlash against “uppity blacks,” antiwar demonstrators, the New Left of radical politics, and “welfare bums.”70 In addition, 1968 was a presidential election year, and race became a preeminent issue in the campaign.71 There was a sense that the PPC had further alienated the white majority and that things were moving too far and too fast on poverty.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader who committed himself to the poorest in the land who had no voice, no power, and no influence in American society. To help them he called for structural change, not mere reform. King referred to the need for “democratic socialism” in America.72 Some scholars now view him as part of a long tradition of black dissenters, including the formerly enslaved Frederick Douglass, who stressed class and structural forces in relation to the struggle for equality.73 King observed that racial inequality was embedded in class.74 His idea of the Poor People’s Campaign was for a “class-based” confrontation to force real change.75 Prominent SCLC leader and Resurrection City manager Jesse Jackson agreed that the focus of the PPC was on “class, primarily, and race, secondarily.”76 King’s rhetoric on the haves and the have-nots provoked accusations in the Cold War environment that he was in league with communists.
King maintained his commitment to taking poor people to Washington, D.C., in 1968 in the face of increasing social and political hostility from rightwing Republicans, conservative Democrats, and a general backlash against the movement. Opponents of the PPC told poor people to call off their planned occupation of the nation’s capital. Thousands of poor people defied this message and rallied to King’s cause. In the final months of his life, he had refused to be intimidated by regular death threats and a concerted attack by the FBI and other forces of the state to discredit him by exposing alleged failings in his private life. In the end, racism, hatred, and perhaps even fear of what he proposed for America killed him. But his death only further inspired impoverished people and their leaders to continue with their plans to come to Washington in May 1968 to dramatize the issue of poverty. This is the story of Dr. King’s final campaign.