On April 4, 1967, at Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King Jr. took a courageous risk when he proclaimed his opposition to the Vietnam War. Having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King took on the mantle of not only a champion of civil rights but also an ardent advocate for international peace and economic justice. This new direction unsettled close associates of King. They and many others felt that his antiwar stance would be deleterious to the civil rights movement, which required support from those who still favored the war.
King was undeterred. Despite the material bounty evident throughout American society, significant swaths of the population — African Americans and others, including poor White people — were structurally denied access to the advantages enjoyed by the majority of the citizenry. To King’s mind, the madness in Southeast Asia was a monumental moral disgrace. The war, too, was distracting attention from critical domestic issues and draining resources from urgent needs here at home. King surmised, the nation’s poor of every ethnicity were victimized by a ruthless ideology. As a result of his deepened inclusive vision for our troubled society, King began outlining the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC). It would bring legions of America’s impoverished to Washington, DC. There, the indigent masses would occupy the city and coerce an indifferent government to take overdue action to thoroughly rectify injustices.
About one month into the PPC’s planning phase, MLK was assassinated in Memphis while there supporting striking sanitation workers. The shot that killed King was fired one year to the day after he had pronounced his stand against the war. In 1999, the assassination was the focus of a civil trial brought about with the cooperation of MLK’s family. The jury concluded that elements of the U.S. government had been complicit in King’s murder. In the wake of this bombshell, the Justice Department was mute and did nothing.
Historian Sylvie Laurent has composed an expansive history of the PPC in her fine volume “King and the Other America.” In pursuit of what would be MLK’s final mission, Laurent writes, “King wanted to converge economics, race, and social and political equality.” Like Frederick Douglass, King perceived that political moderation did little to erase the indignities of an unjust status quo. Laurent invokes the words of Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
For all of the frustration and uncertainty he encountered in the course of his work for justice, MLK never deviated from his commitment to nonviolence — not simply as a tactic, but as a consummate way of life.
In 1962 author Michael Harrington produced his influential survey of mid-20th century American poverty, “The Other America.” The book arrived at a time when most Americans were oblivious to the poor. It inspired the Kennedy-Johnson War on Poverty. On encountering Harrington’s book, says Laurent, “King was compelled by the interplay of race and class, concurring that the material relations shaped by capitalism led to an economic exploitation that is at the heart of capitalist society.” He would eventually ask Harrington, a democratic socialist, to put together a blueprint for the PPC.
The violent death of MLK was an immeasurable loss but the PPC went forward. The vanguard of the movement entered Washington, D.C., on May 28, 1968 and began lobbying elected politicians and departmental officials. They hoped to motivate Congress to endorse an Economic Bill of Rights, a domestic Marshall Plan that would address glaring disparities and the need for jobs, affordable housing and accessible health care. On June 12, 1968 — one week after the assassination of Robert Kennedy — Resurrection City was inaugurated on the Washington Mall. Rev. Ralph Abernathy pronounced the gathering a multiracial “American Commune,” which he called Koinonia, “a community of love and brotherhood.” During its brief existence, it had its own zip code and a mayor, Jesse Jackson. Twelve days later, authorities closed in. In the midst of tear gas and hundreds of arrests, the ramshackle congeries of tents and shanties was dispersed and the PPC “quickly faded from popular political memory.”
Some have determined that the PPC was a failure. Not so, says Harvard’s William Julius Wilson in the foreword to Laurent’s book. He states that in this time of Trump, “King’s evolving arguments in the formulation of his Poor People’s Campaign, arguments on how the problems of ordinary Americans can be addressed in an era of rising inequality…are just as relevant in today’s political climate.” Indeed, MLK was prescient in his analysis of the crucial interplay of racial, social, political and economic forces. “As miners’ canaries,” writes Laurent, “the residents of Resurrection City warned the nation about the subterranean tremors announcing the plague of inequality.” In 2013, in the pages of The New York Times Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz recognized that King was truly prophetic “and was right to recognize that these persistent divides are a cancer in our society, undermining our democracy and weakening our economy.”
Today, the banner of King’s PPC has been taken up by a whole new, nationwide crop of committed and conscientious activists. In a fresh effort to enkindle a visionary “Moral Fusion Movement,” they intend to substantively address the systemic devastation of racism, poverty, militarism and ecological destruction. The New Poor People’s Campaign arrives like a restorative bolt of righteous energy. A mammoth gathering is being planned — a Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington — for June of 2020. The goal is to “revive the heart and soul of the nation!” May the revolutionary spirit of MLK guide and invigorate this timely endeavor.
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