The Poor People’s Campaign 43 years later through the lens of Occupy Wall Street
I had not reflected much on my participation in Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign since 1968, feeling that it is barely a footnote in history. Due to the current “Occupy” movement, however, the significance of the Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City, the shantytown we built in Washington D.C., is now often in the forefront of my mind. Resurrection City is resurrecting in many communities throughout the US. In my journal of June 12, 1968 facing the prospect of leaving Resurrection City, I wrote, “We leave with optimism and hope. If the city remained through the summer, a movement would be born — perhaps it has already been born. However, there is no movement until people join together and move.”
In the early spring of 1968 I was offered the opportunity to join in the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). I was to go as a participant-observer with three other students from UCLA. Other small groups of students from around California gathered at Stanford University for a couple of weeks of training in the tactics of non-violent civil disobedience, and to learn more about poverty in America and the needs and demands of the Campaign.
This movement was to bring attention to the plight of the poor in America while the war in Vietnam raged on. Civil rights, the war, economic and racial inequality were the subtext of the injustices that were reaching a boiling point economically, socially, and politically in America and impacting our nation’s poor. While we were at our training, on April 4th Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis while organizing poor people’s caravans through the South and supporting the strike of the Memphis sanitation workers.
Several of the universities pulled their students out of the program as Washington D.C. and other major cities erupted in the flames of bitter grief. Then UCLA Dean of Students, Charles Young (later Chancellor), called us and gave us the choice to go on to Washington or to withdraw. The four of us opted to go. He gave us the University’s support as well as an emergency contact in D.C.
Obviously, there were many points of concern; not least of all was the “war zone” we were about to enter. A major one was the uncertainty of the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Dr. King’s absence, and doubt if the PPC would even go forward. The leadership of the SCLC under Reverend Ralph Abernathy decided to proceed in honor of Dr. King.
Our first night in Washington D.C. was spent “sleeping” in a warehouse that was the collection point for used clothing for the poor. The next morning we went to the SCLC office at 14th and U Streets in D.C. Stores were smoldering amidst ruined buildings (except for those with “Soul Brother” scrawled on the windows), and there was a constant presence of fire trucks, police cars, and people in the streets.
The lines between “participant” and “observer” quickly blurred. The SCLC needed our help to prepare for the arrival of the poor people’s caravans from all over the US, to build shanties for shipment to the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and to lobby members of Congress to give a permit for occupation of the Mall. We were also enlisted and trained to be “freedom school teachers” in the shantytown they would call “Resurrection City.” When the caravans started arriving in Washington on May 12, we trucked the parts of shelters we had fabricated to the National Mall, and Resurrection City was built. Another student and I moved into Resurrection City as Washington D.C. became occupied by a cross section of the nation’s poor.
This is the backdrop for how I compare the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and the Occupy Movement that is spreading across America in 2011. The PPC was deemed a failure after seven weeks of demonstrations and occupation of Washington. Statistically, this is mostly correct: In 1968 the percentage of people living below the poverty line was 12.8% while in 2011 the number has risen to more than 16%.
During the Poor People’s Campaign, although there were many news organizations present, the story was not told, and if it was, the emphasis was on the negative: How the incessant rains and mud had made life miserable and unhealthy in the swampland Resurrection City had become, to how the leadership of the movement was divided. The real issues, the real needs and demands of the poor, the peaceful demonstrations and the unwavering courage of the participants were largely ignored.
When people complained about the ever-present mud in Resurrection City, one sharecropper from the south said, “But this is how the poor always live! Let people see it as it is!” (Click to view images of Resurrection City: Street 1 — Street 2)
When I revisit the experience of the Poor People’s Campaign and the six weeks I lived in Resurrection City through the lens of the current “Occupy” movement, many significant elements of each campaign reveal the culture of poverty that has always existed in the U.S. but that now has a different face. Below I compare some prominent elements that distinguish our current culture of poverty, and perhaps point to our next step in economic, social, and political evolution:
The Poor People’s Campaign — 1968
The “Occupy” Movement — 2011
1968 — Goals: Jobs, income and housing were the main goals of the Poor People’s Campaign. In addition were the issues of welfare rights, plus the effects of institutionalized racism and militarism on poverty. 2011 — Goals: Eliminate social and economic inequality, corporate greed, corruption and influence over government, the war, the jobless rate, protect the environment, and stop foreclosures on homes.
1968 — The Poor: Largely minorities — African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics and rural poor Whites. Most were from families that had been poor for generations. They were thought of by mainstream America as “Them.” 2011 — The Poor: Many of the poor are often working low wage jobs or recently jobless, graduates of colleges and universities and others with high debt, veterans, elderly, and young. Often they are people who came from middle class backgrounds. They are calling themselves the 99% and hence are “Us.”
1968 — Leadership: Centralized — the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and the SCLC were organizing and setting the tactics and agenda. At the same time there was some disagreement in the ranks. Black Power leaders such as Stokley Carmichael disagreed with the racial integration of the movement. There were many leaders of churches, and veterans of more than ten years of civil rights campaigns. The demonstrations were orderly and very disciplined, with a corps of marshals guiding the ranks who marched in line singing freedom and gospel songs. The objectives were very focused. 2011 — Leadership: Decentralized and diverse in terms of age, economic, cultural and ethnic background. It is a national movement in many cities and communities referred to by some as “Translocal Networking” — many independent groups with local leaders sharing resources and strategies, and supporting one-another. Many demonstrators are novices in terms of participating in non-violent civil disobedience. The objectives range from jobs, to political corruption, to unjust practices of financial institutions, to the war, to the environment and global warming. The demonstrations are energetic, provocative, and festive. The main movers are young and adept at technology and communications and are fast gaining organizational impact through collaborative networks and actions.
1968 — Media: The major news networks and news organizations controlled the media and edited the story that was told to the public. While much of the movement was filmed and photographed, little appeared in the press. Often the stories that did appear fed upon the fears and uncertainties dominating race relations in the post Martin Luther King era. The PPC was often spoken of as the “last chance for nonviolence.” There was not much the movement could do to tell its own story beyond the typical means of press conferences, interviews and press releases. Communication was through mimeographed flyers, and church meetings. Neither photocopies nor mobile phones yet existed. Even if available, the poor had neither the access nor the expertise to use the media of the day, and most alternative media was focused on the anti-war movement. 2011 — Media: In the “Occupy” movement every participant is a potential reporter. The internet has become the means of communication, organization, and multi-media reporting. Facebook, YouTube, cell phones, blogs, and a multitude of websites can instantaneously broadcast videos and stories. Many websites feature live streams of events as they unfold. This popular media is ahead of the networks and major newspapers, and can serve as a check on rumors, and abuses as they occur and shape the news that is reported. The reports are frequently first person and serve to balance, stimulate, and provoke national media attention on the actions of the movement. There is a broad use of on-line petitions to call for reforms, to fight injustice and to bring attention to elected officials.
1968 — Occupation: The shanties were built to endure, and the object was to create a poor people’s shantytown in our nation’s capitol with people from many states, and of different ethnicities. The symbolism of having Resurrection City at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King made his “I Have a Dream” speech was important. In Resurrection City there was a City Hall, a mayor (Jesse Jackson, age 27 with afro and dashiki), a cafeteria tent, meeting areas, sanitation facilities and neighborhoods. There was Chi-Town where the Blackstone Rangers, a Chicago gang ruled, Harlem where the sophisticated New Yorkers lived and had their Malcom X Shabazz Center, Mo-Town, Memphis, San Francisco, Appalachia, and so forth, all built and organized as each caravan arrived. There were lots of children, a “Freedom School,” and the first baby was born during the first week. The occupants were forcibly evicted on June 19, 1968 after six weeks of occupation. 2011 — Occupation: The “tent cities” have grown spontaneously in cities across the U.S. taking their cue from New York City’s Zuccotti Park near Wall Street. They have sprung up from coast to coast in parks near city centers and even in small communities. The occupy movement is mobile, moving out to suburbs to occupy homes threatened by foreclosure. They have communications centers, first aid stations, and places to feed participants. Occupy Wall Street has been an encampment for eight weeks now longer than Resurrection City before it was forcibly shut down. While incessant rains made living in Resurrection City very uncomfortable, the occupy movement will be tested by winter weather. In 2011 the occupy movement is taking its message to where people live, so it is more visible and focuses attention on local issues.
1968 — Outcomes: The central goal of the PPC was for Congress to pass a “Poor People’s Bill of Rights” that would guarantee economic security for the nation’s poor. This did not happen. The movement quickly disappeared from public attention as the participants dispersed back to their homes and to the conditions they had left. The growing and increasingly violent anti-war movement at that summer’s Republican and Democratic Conventions overshadowed the movement. The PPC is barely noticed in the history of that era, except for the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy that took place at that time. 2011 — Outcomes: The “Occupy Movement” has many goals from economics, to housing, to war, to the environment. They can focus on local issues and elections. It has energized the labor movement, and on November 8, 2011 an anti-labor bill was overturned in Ohio. On November 5, “Bank Transfer Day” was held to encourage people to transfer their money from large banks to local Credit Unions. Last week, the Credit Union National Association reported that at least 650,000 new people had joined credit unions across the country since Sept. 29 for a total of $4.5 billion in new deposits. In the Senate last week, a Veteran’s Jobs bill passed. The unemployment rate for male veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan is 21.9% while the national average hovers around 9%. Several homeowners have avoided eviction and gained bank refinancing of mortgages due to actions of the occupy movement in their community. The movement against the Keystone XL pipeline aligned itself with the occupy movement and last week Obama deferred its approval. The outcomes are thus perhaps smaller and more local, but may cumulatively impact the political and economic culture more. The occupy movement is energizing many communities to advocate for the voiceless against the powerful interests.
The above is simply a portrait of the two movements that have focused on issues of poverty and economic injustice since World War II. The Poor People’s Campaign was an “Occupy Washington D.C.” movement that was an amazing feat of organization. Their ability to bring over 7,000 poor people to the nation’s Capitol, house and feed them in Resurrection City, in order to directly confront the seat of power, was a victory of leadership and organization spearheaded by the SCLC. It was King’s “second phase” of the civil rights struggle.
Perhaps the “Occupy” movement owes its roots to the Poor People’s Campaign, at least in spirit, and perhaps it is finally fulfilling Dr. King’s dream of economic justice. In the four decades since the PPC, wealth and power have been consolidated in corporations to the point that many no longer call our nation a “democracy,” but rather a “corporatocracy,” where politicians, courts and government agencies serve corporations, and they rule decisions on all aspects of our life from our food to our environment. The tipping point has been reached where now the resulting economic, social, and political poverty of our nation is no longer tolerable nor sustainable. Now that the mainstream is facing increasingly bleak prospects of ever attaining the American Dream that the poor have always faced, perhaps real solutions will be found, as people rise up and advocate for justice.
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