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Friday, January 22, 2021

January 22, 2021: MLK Histories: The Poor People’s Campaign

[For this year’s MLK Day series, starting as always with my annual post on remembering the full King, I wanted to return to that source, focusing on a few under-remembered moments from King’s tragically brief but strikingly full activist life. Leading up to a special weekend post on a few of King’s 21st century heirs!]

On the second of two ways to think about King’s work resonating beyond his death.

In yesterday’s post, I considered what King’s fourth and final book, 1967’s Where Do We Go from Here, helps us think about when it comes to where his work was in his final years of life and how his legacy has extended and deepened from there. But while King was a hugely gifted author (of written prose just as much as oratory), his most consistent and crucial efforts were in the organizing and leadership of collective actions and movements, of public protest and civic action. And for the final year of his life, inspired in part by an October 1966 march on Washington on behalf of welfare rights and in part by his own deepening sense of the need for immediate, revolutionary economic activism (as illustrated by his embrace of Henry George and the concept of a guaranteed income in Where Do We Go from Here), King was the principal organizer of a strikingly radical and important such collective action, the Poor People’s Campaign (also known as the Poor People’s March on Washington).

King conceived of the campaign in a couple of key 1967 stages: first proposing the idea to the May 1967 SCLC retreat in Frogmore, South Carolina; and then, in response to the July 1967 riots in Newark and Detroit, co-authoring with his friend and colleague Stanley Levison a report entitled “The Crisis in America’s Cities” which called for a campaign of urban disruption focused on Washington, DC. Around that latter time, Senator Robert Kennedy likewise proposed to their mutual friend Marian Wright Edelman that she “tell Dr. King to bring the poor people to Washington to make hunger and poverty visible since the country's attention had turned to the Vietnam War and put poverty and hunger on the back burner.” In early December the SCLC and King formally announced the campaign, which they then launched in January 1968 with an “Economic Fact Sheet” and with a series of more specific demands in February and March (including guaranteed income, an antipoverty bill, and the annual construction of at least half a million affordable homes). Despite King’s tragic April assassination, the campaign continued, culminating in a six-week march on and occupation of DC in May and June.

That May-June march and occupation thus illustrated a particularly overt and potent extension of King’s work beyond his life, one that built on his own ideas and inspirations but of course featured the crucial contributions of and leadership by many other figures as well (including Ralph Abernathy, Bernard Lafayette, Corky Gonzales, Hosea Williams, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and many more). But I would also note that this final activist focus of King’s—which also included specific complementary causes such as the Memphis sanitation strike that brought King to Memphis in April—helps us see past the artificial division between race and class that too often continues to plague our narratives of identity, community, and activism. King fully recognized the intersections and interconnections between those elements, and saw his work across these years as precisely fighting for that larger vision of identity: as he put it to the March SCLC conference, “We have moved from the era of civil rights to an era of human rights.” As I’ll discuss in the weekend post, the 21st century Poor People’s Campaign has carried forward that legacy, helping us continue to hear and respond to King’s culminating calls and causes.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other MLK histories or contexts you’d highlight?

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