By Neil Cosgrove
As the present-day Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) continues to gather steam, much can be learned and applied from examining the similar circumstances that gave birth to the original 1968 campaign, organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In 1968, just as today, the federal government had significantly reduced its support for the poor, and more generally for those victimized by the vagaries of an economic system much too dependent on exploitation. The 1967 federal budget had cut back on spending on education, job training, and social services, with a corresponding shift of funds to a military embroiled in the Vietnam War.
The origins of poverty, and the ways it was experienced, were also changing. The formerly rural poor, who at least as tenant farmers could grow their own food, had moved into inner cities, into low-paying jobs and substandard housing. In 2020 we have the downward movement of a shrinking middle class, beset by automation, weakened unions, and uncontrolled medical costs, working multiple low-paying jobs while confronted with rising housing costs people can ill afford.
Along with its immediate economic benefits, President Johnson’s “war on poverty” also had the effect of encouraging people to identify less by race and region, and more as poor or low-income. King and his fellow civil-rights leaders decided the time had come to expand their mission to systemic economic change, a change that would lift up all of the downtrodden and enlist the middle class in their project. Today’s Poor People’s Campaign is motivated by that same inclusiveness.
Sometimes we mistakenly believe that the Trump administration’s open hostility to immigrants and to empowered women, and its slightly more disguised racial divisiveness, is something new that progressives must now confront. The Johnson administration, and the legislative majorities it commanded, is historically viewed as much more sympathetic to the plight of poor Americans. But by early 1968 Johnson had turned on King and other civil rights leaders, hurt by their criticism of the war, and wary of their insistence on systemic economic change.
“On the whole,” historian Gerald McKnight has written, “the Johnson administration reacted as though the campaigners were an invading horde from a strange land intent on the violent disruption of the government rather than fellow Americans, most of whom were underprivileged and powerless nonwhite citizens.”
This inchoate fear was effectively fueled by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which pointed to the violence that had broken out during King’s March action in support of the Memphis sanitation workers, while conveniently hiding that the FBI and local police, as Thomas F. Jackson argues, had planted agent provocateurs in the crowd to encourage that violence. Hoover himself saw the Poor People’s Campaign as another left-wing challenge to an American system he favored, and that obviously favored him, a challenge similar in character to the post-World War I social unrest during which he had come of bureaucratic age.
By March, 1968 the FBI had compiled a list of the organizations that had endorsed the Poor People’s Campaign. By May the Defense Department was planning the deployment of 20,000 troops who would defend the Capital against the marchers. The Campaign set up a shanty-town—Resurrection City–on the National Mall in May with a population that fluctuated between 1,500 and 3,000 over the next six weeks. Following a rally on the 19th that drew over 50,000 participants, Resurrection City was cleared by police on June 24th and bulldozed immediately afterwards.
“Eight additional demonstrations, some with mass arrests, took place after June 24,” testifies a history published by the Kairos Center, “but the energy and resources for the Campaign were quickly depleted.”
Today’s PPC recognizes the value of what initially motivated the 1968 Campaign—the need to break down racial barriers among the nation’s poor and to enlist our threatened middle class in systemic change. It has also sought to correct what it perceives as the weaknesses of that past effort.
First of all, the Campaign had given itself too little time to organize such a massive effort—from December, 1967 to May, 1968. Under the sponsorship of the Kairos Center, based at Union Theological Seminary, and Repairers of the Breach, connected to Rev. William Barber’s Moral Mondays movement, participants have been hard at work planning and developing the current PPC for close to a decade.
Secondly, the 1968 Campaign was too centralized in its leadership and organization, and consequently the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy drained some of the energy from the movement. PPC aims to have “many Martins.” “The campaign is not an organization,” asserts Nijme Dzurinko, co-chair of the Pennsylvania PPC, “the campaign is the place where organizations can come together.”
The Thomas Merton Center is one of those organizations that have joined the current PPC.
Neil Cosgrove is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective and the Merton Center board.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 2. March, 2020. All rights reserved.