The Poor People's Campaign Seeks To Complete Martin Luther King's Final Dream

May 14, 2018
Originally published on May 15, 2018 2:59 pm

Thousands of low-wage workers, faith leaders and civil rights advocates are expected to descend on more than 30 state capitals and Washington, D.C. today to relaunch a fight against poverty, war and income inequality that first took root half a century ago.

The original 1968 Poor People's Campaign was a multicultural, multi-faith coalition planned by Martin Luther King. It brought thousands of Americans living in poverty to the national mall to demand better living conditions and higher wages.

Organizers of the new Poor People's Campaign say 50 years later, King's dream remains unfulfilled and those demands largely unmet. So demonstrators are kicking off 40 days of nonviolent direct action.

"We understand that in order to change things we have to do the rallies, we have to do organizing, we have to do voter mobilization, we have to engage in civil disobedience," says Rev. William Barber, a pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and a national co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign.

"People will come together and put their mouths and their bodies on the line to force the nation, the media to have to see and hear the people that are impacted," says Barber, who will be in Washington to lead the demonstration at the U.S. Capitol.

The plan is to have simultaneous "waves" of action across the country calling attention to the "enmeshed evils," including systemic racism and America's war economy that organizers say are contributing to so many living in poverty, the majority of whom are white.

According to the U.S. Census, there are nearly 41 million people living in poverty, though Barber believes that number is off.

He points to research by the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank that focuses on social issues, which estimates 140 million Americans are "either poor or low-income" when items beyond income are considered, including out of pocket costs for food, clothing, and utilities.

"It's just constant juggling, figuring out what bill to pay and what not," says Terrence Wise, a fast food worker for 20 years.

He lives in Kansas City but is making the trip to Missouri's capital, Jefferson City, to protest.

As a shift manager at McDonald's, he makes $10.25 an hour. His fiancé is a home healthcare worker who makes $12 an hour. Wise says it is difficult to make ends meet while raising their three teenage daughters.

"And it's really dangerous when we are skipping meals or having to buy less food. Now you are not only struggling financially, you're possibly affecting the health of your family and your children."

Wise is a leading voice in the push to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

He hopes that the new Poor People's campaign helps make Americans more mindful of the struggles low-income people go through.

"I'm hoping it shakes America's conscience — that it makes many more aware," Wise says. "The goal is to bring more and more Americans into the movement and help make things better on all levels for everyone."

Organizers have many demands

Organizers hope Monday's events are just the beginning.

The original 1968 Poor People's Campaign was King's vision to take the civil rights fight beyond injustices rooted in Jim Crow and to expand them to fight indignities of poverty suffered across racial lines.

King never lived to see the campaign get underway. But just weeks after his assassination, some 3,000 poor Americans came to Washington to form Resurrection City – a semi-permanent shantytown of wooden tents erected on the national mall.

The centerpiece was of that campaign was a mule train, a caravan that made its way from Marks, Miss., the poorest town, in the poorest county, in the poorest state, to Washington D.C. People lived there for six weeks.

Civil Rights icon Jesse Jackson, the founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, was appointed "city manager" of Resurrection City and wrote about it in a CNN opinion piece.

"For 42 mostly rain-drenched and mud covered days, Resurrection City was home to thousands of the poorest of the poor, doing their best to prick the conscience of America and force action against the sin of grinding poverty in the richest nation on earth."

Barber did not rule a Resurrection City-like demonstration in future actions.

For the next month and a half, each week will have a theme starting with a focus on children, women and people with disabilities living in poverty.

The new Poor People's Campaign is calling for a list of demands including changes to federal and state living wage laws that are "commensurate for the 21st century economy," a reinvestment in public housing, a repeal to the 2017 GOP-led tax plan, an end to America's militarism and reallocation of "resources from the military budget to education, health care, jobs and green infrastructure needs" and eradicating systemic racism, just to name a few.

Michael Jeffries is an associate professor of American Studies at Wellesley College in Massachusettes. He says the movement is coming at the right time, but the focus may be too expansive.

"[Barber] has a list of demands for this reinvigorated Poor People's Campaign, but it is a lengthy list," Jeffries says.

"The piece of this that remains to be seen is, can you sustain a social movement with as many issues as Barber is targeting?"

For his part, Barber says he and other organizers are building for a multi-year campaign.

"We know this nation can be better," Barber says. "We've never lost a fight for justice that we chose to fight. The only ones we have lost in history are the ones no one chose to stand up for."

Editor's note: This post has been updated to clarify the findings cited in the Institute for Policy Studies report. The report found 140 million Americans are either poor or low-wage. The original post said those 140 million are living in poverty.

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Low-wage workers and clergy are demonstrating today for economic justice. The demonstrations are unfolding in 30 state capitals, also here in Washington. They mark a revival of the Poor People's Campaign that Martin Luther King Jr. started shortly before he was assassinated in 1968. Here's his wife, Coretta Scott King, talking to activists after his death.


CORETTA SCOTT KING: We must dedicate and rededicate ourselves to making a society based on the principles of love, truth, nonviolence, justice and peace.

KELLY: That audio was provided by Pacifica Archives. As it did 50 years ago, today's Poor People's Campaign aims to put a face on poverty in America, also to get elected officials to take action. NPR's Brakkton Booker is reporting on this, and he joins us now from the U.S. Capitol. Hey there, Brakkton.


KELLY: So I said Washington is one of the places where we've got these demonstrations. What's going on where you are today?

BOOKER: Well, it was quite a scene today. So there were quite a few people out there - couple hundred. And it was nothing out of the ordinary for a typical rally you would see in Washington. People were holding signs that read, poor is immoral and signs about starving a child is violence. And people were - who are living in poverty and in some cases suffering as a result of not having health care addressed the crowd. They were urging others who were not there to not let their pain go in vain, rather use their voices to demand elected officials address issues of poverty. And here's the Poor People's Campaign national co-chair Reverend Barber, who spoke at the rally.


WILLIAM BARBER: We've come to put a face on the facts. We've come to put forward the people who are hurt by the policy violence and the attention violence because you can't change the narrative until you change the narrator.

BOOKER: So they want to change the narrator to the people. And so after the speeches were done, they left the stage and walked into the street between the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court. And faith leaders and low-wage workers and folks who are demanding health care were blocking traffic. And Capitol Police allowed them to kind of go on about their business for a while, and then they started arresting people. And about - organizers anticipate about a hundred people were arrested today.

KELLY: A hundred people arrested - OK, so walk us back, and remind everybody. What was Martin Luther King's original vision for this back in 1968?

BOOKER: Right. So the Poor People's Campaign was one of Martin Luther King's lesser-known campaigns, but perhaps it was his most ambitious. You got to remember that King had already been instrumental in getting landmark legislation passed like the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And so people talk about how the campaign was kind of losing steam. So he said, look; poverty impacts all people, not just black people, not just people of color. Poverty impacts people of all races.

So he organized this coalition of white, black, Latino, Native American and brought all these people to the Mall. Now, I've got to say King was assassinated before the Poor People's Campaign got underway, but it still carried on in the weeks after his death. And they built a tent city called Resurrection City, and it lasted 42 days. But most people say that not much came out of that 1968 Poor People's Campaign.

KELLY: And why the revival now? This is a 50-year anniversary thing.

BOOKER: Sure. Certainly that has a lot to do with it. But, you know, people say - organizers say that, look; not a lot has changed. They say, look; 26 million people were living in poverty in 1967, and current census figures say that 41 million people are still living in poverty. They say that, look; actually, when you break down the figures and we factor all kinds of things, 40 million people are living in poverty. And something has to be done, so they want people to stand up.

KELLY: All right, thank you, Brakkton.

BOOKER: Thank you.

KELLY: That's NPR's Brakkton Booker reporting on the Poor People's Campaign.