The Poor People’s March, also known as the Poor People’s Campaign, was led by Martin Mr. Kingand was planned by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Marion Wright suggested the idea of the Poor People’s March to Dr. King and duringa staff retreat for the SCLC in November 1967, King announced the Poor People’s March and this led to its creation on 4th December1967. King (1967) informed that initially, he had an idea that two thousand people should come to Washington, D.C. where they would meet the government officials and ask for a decent minimum wage, jobs, unemployment insurance, and education for the grown-ups who were poor and children meant to better their self-image (par. 2). The organizing and planning process was however not left to Martin Luther alone. SCLC was fully involved in the planning and implementation and even took over the campaign after King’s assassination on 4th April 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee.
This research paper is aimed at analyzing the Poor People’s March by discussing its planning and implementation as well as its achievements and failures. In addition, based on the leadership lessons that can be derived from the Poor People’s March, the paper has cited the way forward for the leaders who would wish to take over the mantle from leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.
SCLC planned a nationwide campaign in Washington, D.C. on 22nd April1968 during spring with an aim of focusing the attention of the nation on issues of economic justice and housing for the America’s poor people. It was to specificallyput pressure on the Congress so that it can pass legislation to cater for housing and employment matters.The marchaimed ataiding the poor citizens by dramatizing their wants, bringing together in unity all races characterized withhardship and presenting and implementing a workplanthat would lead to solving their problems(SCLC, 1968). The Poor People’s March, through the Economic bill of rights, requested the government to put to priority helping the poor with $30 million to fight poverty and this would include committing to an annual income that is guaranteed, full employment and more low-income housing that would include the construction of five hundred thousand housing units per year until all the shanties were done away with. According to Ben (1968), the Bill of Rights was to act as a step to lift the poverty load (p. 6)
Unlike earlier efforts that were focused towards enabling African-Americansto attain voting and civil rights, SCLC and its leader Dr. King now looked at matters that were affecting the poor population with no regard to racial background. The protesters were the poor from a broad range of ethnic, racial, and social-economic backgrounds who united with the aim of spreading the campaign message to various Federal agencies. They included urban and rural blacks, native Americans from reservations, Southwest Latinos, and West Virginia’s poor whites. They disrupted life in Washington as they tried to force a response from the government. Several leaders of the poor and minority communities were also in support of the Poor People’s Campaign.
King had earlier on asked for help from AFSC and was grateful to them for the aid, cooperation and devotion that AFSC had accorded them previously. Both the AFSC and NWRO were primary organizers and planners of the march and they aided in raising funds, recruitment and setting up demands (Ben, 1968, p.5) Several other organizations also endorsed the campaign and offered various services such as financial support and education to the poor in addition to participating in the demonstrations.
Dr. King viewed the campaign as the next chapter in the strife for a true equality. Voting right and inclusion were crucial, but Martin Luther King Jr. had a believe that the minority would notbe able to acquire citizenship in full till they attained economic security. By means of non-violent direct action, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC expected to direct the attention of the country on poverty and economic inequality. According to the SCLC (1968), Mr. King described this campaign as the start of a new determination, co-operation and understanding by the poor of all races and foundations to claim and win the right to a fair living and regard for their dignity and culture (par. 4).
The Poor People’s March was organized into three phases. It was to start withthe construction of a shantytown that would house 1,500 to 3,000 demonstrators. The town was known as the Resurrection City and was put up on the National Mall situated between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument after the acquisition of permit from the National Park Service. The demonstrators would remain in this mega-tent city until their demands were met. Other march participants were to be housed in other family and group residences in Washington, D.C. The second step was to start mass non-violent civil disobedience, public demonstrations, and mass arrests to protest the country’s poverty situation. The last phase was to initiate a boycott of the main shopping areas and industries nationwide. This was in order to make business leaders put pressure on Congress and this would make them meet the campaign’s demands.
Those who were organizing the campaign got recruits from all corners of America. Americans of various life backgrounds came from every corner of the country. However, Dr. King was assassinated on 12th April 1968 as the organizers strategized and collected the supplies. This was followed by protests for two weeks in Washington, D.C.After Martin Luther’s assassination, his widow Coretta, SCLC, black ministers who includedJesse Jackson and Rev. Ralph Abernathy, vowed to move on the campaign with Mr. King’s assistant, Rev. Ralph Abernathy being the newly selected leader (Ben, 1968, p.10). On 12th May 1968, which was a Mother’s Day, Coretta Scott King led thousands of women to demonstrate and this was the first demonstrator’s wave. On the day that followed, Resurrection City was built and the protesters stayed there for six weeks. These campaign participants made daily demonstrations to the various federal agencies protesting and asking for economic justice.
The efforts of the Poor People’s March came to a climax in the Solidarity Day on 19th June1968. The demonstrators rallied for freedom, jobs, and peace. Fifty thousand people joined the three thousand who were living in the resurrection city for the campaign. This was the first and only overwhelming mobilization to take place in the course of the Poor People’s March. A proposal for an Economic Bill of Rights was presented by Bayard Rustin for Solidarity Day. The proposal called upon the federal government to: do a recommitment to the 1994’s full employment act and pass into law the creation of not less than one million jobs in the public service immediately, adopt the 1968’s housing and urban development act that was pending, cancel the punitive welfare restrictions of the 90th Congress in the 1967 Social Security Act, avail the right given to all farm workers under the National Labor Relations Act to enable them set up agricultural labor unions, bring back reduced budgets for diglot education, fore-start jobs during summer, Economic Opportunity Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Acts.At the middle of the campaign period, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. He was aspiring for the presidency and was one of the Poor People’s Campaign key supporters in the congress. The Resurrection City was forced to close mid-Junewhen the permit to utilize the park lane was no longer valid.
The march had success in wee ways which included qualifying two hundredcounties for the distribution of surplus food free and securing assertions from various federal agencies to employ the poor so as to aid in running programs for the poor. In addition, Rev. Joseph Lowery, the co-founder of SCLC with King, added that America was now aware of the fact that its poor population was growing. Also, the Poor People’s March provided the participants with essential skills and contacts that they would go and use in their own liberation movements. However, according to Abernathy, these grants were inadequate.
Despite the fact that fifty thousand people were involved in the marching, the Poor People’s March was viewed as a failure by the demonstrators who were now weary of protesting and they hadn’t seen any immediate changes (Ben, 1968, p.9). The print media, President Johnsons’ administration, and the congress ignored the march.Apart from these shortcomings, there were other challenges such as bad weather and divisions in the campaign leadership. The heavy rain downpour turned the ground muddy and this made the tents weak, and ultimately forced the demonstrators to leave. The effectiveness of the leadership of the Poor People’s March was also undermined by the tension among the demonstrators that resulted in violent outbreaks. In addition, Senator Robert Kennedy’s assassination on 5th June 1968 sealed the campaign’s fate. Two weeks later, on 19th June 1968, the Resurrection City was closed. There were many arrests and in addition, the economic bill of rights was never passed.
Presently, there hasn’t been much improvement for the poor Americans, many years since the Poor People’s March (Nina Mjagkij, 2001). This argument can further be verified by other sources. For instance, according to the census bureau, twenty-five million people (close to 13 % of the population) were living below the poverty level in 1968. In 2006, thirty-six million people (more than 12 % of the population) were living below the poverty level. In addition, Nina Mjagkij (2001) notes that the role of religion in the black community has greatly changed compared to the days when Martin Luther King Jr. and the others were in power. Big churches have become more popular in the black community as well as the white community over the past few yrs. These churches have acquired riches and influence partially because of the many church members. Other big churches have set up satellite churches broadcasting the gospel on television. The majority of those who participated in the civil rights movement and those taking after them dislike this trend. This is because the activism and guidance that was offered by the church on crucial issues and the support to the poor is no longer prominent as before.
Despite the failures of the campaign, there are a number of lessons that leaders who wish to take over the mantle to fight for the rights and freedom of the poor in the society can learn from the Poor People’s March. One of these lessons is that the quest and fight for individual rights and freedom can take place peacefully with no incidents of violence. At a press conference, King said that they were keepers of the non-violence philosophy and that the Poor People’s March held firmly to its commitment to non-violence and it had worked. In addition, the commitment that Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated is needed from all leaders eyeing to take up the mantle from Mr. King. He showed the difficulty and necessity of bringing the poor together in unity without minding the religion, race, geography and other divisional lines.
Leaders should also be optimistic and be able to instill the optimism in the people they lead. Some people in SCLC thought that the campaign was too ambitious. King, however, praised the simple campaign goals and said that they were as pure as a man who needed to get a decent living for his family (King, 1967). He added that there was an ultimate goal of self-determination, freedom, and independence but he was aware all that was not to be achieved in a short period of time. Abernathy too was full of hope to the demonstrators as he led them after Rev. King was assassinated. He reminded them that they had come with an appeal of opening doors of the nation to almost fifty million Americans who had not received a fair share of the nation’s riches and opportunity and that they were to stay until they have it.
Leaders should also be able to ignite hope in their followers even when faced with hard situations. This enables the people to continue their pursuit united and not to lose focus despite their challenges. For instance, Jackson, who was the mayor of Resurrection City whose conditions were terrible, encouraged and gave hope and encouragement to the demonstrators. They were disheartened and discouraged by the assassinations, the rain, and the muddy environment, as well as the disregard from congress and presidents’ Johnson administration in general.
From the review of the Poor People’s March, it is clear that the campaign may not have fully realized its objectives of lobbying for employment creation, decent housing, and health care, among others, mainly due to the various challenges it faced. These included assassinations of its leaders and those affiliated to it, arrests, disregard from the media and the congress, tension among the demonstrators, bad weather and the division in leadership after Martin Luther King’s assassination. As a result of all these challenges, the march was only able to gain a few positive outcomes that include acquisition of skills and necessary contacts by the demonstrators, awareness creation of America’s growing poor population, qualifying two hundred counties for the distribution of free excess food, and securing assertions from the federal agencies to employ the poor. In addition to these, aspiring leaders or the leaders already in position can learn a few lessons from the march. These include the need for employing peaceful means in various pursuits and also the importance of instilling hope, faith, and encouragement to the people even during hard times so as to achieve their common goals.
Ben A. Franklin (1968).“Poor People’s Drive Makes Gains, but Fails to reach Goals.”New York Times, 30 June 1968.
King (1967).Address at a workshop on civil disobedience at SCLC staff retreat. 29 November 1967, MLKJP-GAMK.
SCLC (1968). “Black and White Together,” Press release. 15 March 1968, BPD-AB.
Nina Mjagkij (2001).Organizing Black America: An Encyclopedia of African American Associations (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2001); http//poorpeoplescampaignppc.org/HISTORY.html)