On March 31, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his last Sunday sermon, “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution,” in the National Cathedral. In it, he announced the Poor People’s Campaign, which he warned was America’s “last chance” to arouse its “conscience toward constructive democratic change.”
King’s assassination, just days later, threw the campaign into turmoil. But on Mother’s Day, May 12, 1968, Coretta Scott King and members of the national welfare rights movement led massive protests of federal cuts to Head Start, stricter eligibility requirements for public assistance, and the defamation of welfare mothers. In the following weeks, between 3,000 and 5,000 African American, Latinx, Native American and poor white people joined them in a “Resurrection City” built on the National Mall.
The Poor People’s Campaign is one of our nation’s great unfinished journeys. As the fiftieth anniversary approaches, I find myself wanting to know more about that historical moment, and thinking through the parallels–and differences–between 1968 and 2018. Below is a reading and action list for those who might want to know more about the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and today’s Poor People’s Movement.
Books & Dissertations
Amy Sonnie and James Tracey, Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (Melville House, 2011).
Sonnie and Tracey’s book is a fantastic, compelling, and surprising history of the inter-racial coalition politics of the late 1960s. Covers the little-known but fascinating new left organizations–JOIN Community Union, The Young Patriots, Rising Up Angry, the October 4th Organization, and White Lightening–that mobilized poor and working-class white radicals to struggle against racism and economic inequity.
Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (Routledge 2004) or Rethinking the Welfare Rights Movement (Routledge, 2011).
Nadasen writes accessible academic histories of the national welfare rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The crucial contributions of welfare rights organizations to the Poor People’s Campaign are often overlooked. But this massively successful movement to secure basic human rights for all families offers important lessons in nurturing leadership across class and race lines, as well as stirring portraits of principled and innovative poor women who ignited lasting progressive change.
Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
A sensitive and thoughtful chronicle of King’s political journey from civil rights hero to militant opponent of racism, militarism, imperialism, and poverty. Includes a fantastic chapter (Chapter 12: Power to Poor People) on the planning, challenges, and successes of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Gordon Keith Mantler, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974 (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
The only book-length history that I know of dedicated to the Poor People’s Campaign. Mantler focuses on the campaign’s attempts at multiracial coalition, especially between African American and Mexican American participants. A thoughtful and nuanced chronicle of Black-Brown alliance.
Gerald D. McKnight, The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr. the FBI, and the Poor People’s Campaign (Basic Books, 1998).
While McKnight’s history of what he calls “the last large-scale demonstration of civil rights-era America” is sometimes limited, he shines an important light on the rise of the surveillance state and the impacts of spying, infiltration, and racist repression on the Poor People’s Campaign.
Amy Nathan Wright, Civil Rights’ ‘Unfinished Business’: Poverty, Race, and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. Dissertation: University of Texas at Austin, 2007.
I eagerly await any book Wright produces from this subtle and profound dissertation. As she writes, “Civil rights scholars tend to dismissively characterize the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) as the last gasp of the civil rights movement—a failed campaign with no substantial lasting consequences. [But], rather than simply being Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘last crusade,’ the PPC represents civil rights’ ‘unfinished business.’ The problems this campaign tried to address— hunger, joblessness, homelessness, inadequate health care, a failed welfare system—still persist, and people of color, particularly women and children, continue to experience poverty and its effects disproportionately.”
Documents from the Poor People’s Campaign, The Civil Rights Movement Veterans’ Archive (http://www.crmvet.org/docs/ppcdocs.htm)
Great planning and publicity documents for the Poor People’s Campaign: minutes from meetings, brochures, flyers, drafts of SCLC’s Economic Bill of Rights, and letters to supporters and the White House. Fascinating.
The Poor People’s Campaign digital archive at The King Center (http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/theme/62571)
Sermons, newspaper articles, and correspondence from the period leading up to the Poor People’s Campaign.
Resources for Activism Today
The Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign
PPEHRC has been “building a movement to unite the poor across color lines” since 1998. Committed to “uniting the poor as the leadership base for a broad movement to abolish poverty everywhere and forever,” the campaign defines poverty as the lack of even one of the economic rights promised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: housing, health care, a living wage job, social services, equal protection of mothers and children, education, and communication. An inspiring, vocal, innovative organization that mixes survival projects meeting poor family’s direct material needs with movement building and educationals.
The New Poor People’s Campaign
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival arose from coalition work among community organizations, religious leaders, and labor over the last decade. The campaign’s goal is to “lift up and deepen the leadership of those most affected to transform the political, economic and moral structures of our society.” In summer 2017, they are holding Truth Commissions on Poverty across the nation.
Any one up for a reading group? Comment if you’re interested!