Martin Luther King Jr., the Poor People’s Campaign and What Lessons We Can Learn From Both in the 21st Century

By Ülvi Gitaliyev

In 1986, exactly 18 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, MLK Jr. Day was signed into law as a national holiday. Millions of Americans celebrate the life of one of the country’s greatest civil rights leaders and his contributions to the equality of African-Americans both in law and society. For many people, MLK Jr. Day ends there, but there is another, less well-known effort that he helped lead, the Poor People’s Campaign.

Started in 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign aimed to improve the economic conditions of poor Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and other historically oppressed peoples in the United States. On May 14th, 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a veteran civil rights organization, along with major Chicano activists such as Rodolfo Gonzales and many others, helped lead a march to Washington D.C.. It was reminiscent of the 1963 March on Washington in which King made his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The organizers’ main goal was to encourage Congress to pass an economic Bill of Rights that would guarantee a $30 billion anti-poverty package, commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure, and more low-income housing. If passed, such measures would have been the most economically radical in the U.S. since the New Deal era of the 1930s and in some aspects, ever.

The demonstrators set up shanty towns close to the White House in order to remind the administration of then President Lyndon B. Johnson that poverty was still a major issue in the United States and that without federal help, many people would continue to be ignored by society. Strikes by sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee also further invigorated the campaign with “the issue at stake is not violence vs. nonviolence but poverty and racism” becoming a rallying cry for the movement.

What influenced King to focus on these economic, rather than civil rights issues, was his observation that gains in civil rights had not improved the economic conditions of life for many African Americans. In Marxist terms, the economic conditions of the working class would not improve if the owning class continued to exploit them and keep them in poverty. While King did not call himself a Marxist, he certainly did not consider capitalism as the savior of humanity either. What is clear though, was that King recognized that the civil rights struggle was only one chapter of the larger struggle for equality in the United States of America.

Unfortunately, King never lived to see the end of the Poor People’s Campaign, as he was assassinated on April 4th, a month before the start of the march. Ending in June, the march failed to achieve many of its goals, though it did encourage the federal government to further fund programs that would help alleviate poverty in both urban and rural areas. In 2017, social and economic activists founded the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival, aiming to emulate the 1968 movement and carry King’s message of economic justice into the 21st century.

So, in future MLK Jr. Days and whenever the civil rights activist is brought up, do not forget to mention his contributions to economic rights and justice for all racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

One response to “Martin Luther King Jr., the Poor People’s Campaign and What Lessons We Can Learn From Both in the 21st Century”

  1. Although MLK was important, hugely influential, and deserves all the respect he has and more, there were also external factors that contributed to the civil rights movement, namely the Cold War. In the 1960s, red scare was at its peak. Sputnik put the Americans to shame. Soviet leaders were shaming Jim Crows and other anti-black laws at the UN at every opportunity. The chief ideology of black nationalism at that time was Islam (Nation of Islam, etc.). If it were to become communism, which had the backing of many countries and a superpower, it could become much more potent. So, civil rights made sense for committed cold warriors like JFK, LBJ, etc. to persuade the black population away from communism.

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