Can Occupy learn from the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign?

Most people know that when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, he was in Memphis to help striking sanitation workers. What is largely forgotten is that he was involved in a larger campaign to address poverty in the United States.

Addressing poverty. Sound familiar? Similar to the current Occupy movement, it was a call for a more fair distribution of wealth in the United States. The movement was alternately known as the “Poor People’s Campaign” and “Resurrection City.”

The political climate and talking points were quite different forty-three years ago. President Johnson introduced a War on Poverty in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. This was less than seven weeks after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Johnson was able to mobilize support for a progressive agenda in the spirit of the Kennedy administration, although many of the specifics of Johnson’s plan including the war on poverty had not yet been proposed by Kennedy.

There were a number of programs established in the War on Poverty that improved economic conditions for poor people and often empowered them to manage projects. But in August, 1965 when Johnson chose to significantly escalate the war in Vietnam, he redirected considerable financial resources from domestic needs to a problematic war 10,000 miles away. The hope that had been generated among low-income individuals and families was dashed. America faced the frustration of rising expectations – promises that had been made and now were not being kept. This was expressed by despair as well as anger as evidenced by the urban riots that spread across the nation in the mid to late 1960s.

Our current frustration does not emanate from rising expectations. Instead we now are in a sea of declining expectations. For all but the very wealthy, hope has been extinguished and replaced with fear about an uncertain and seemingly bleak future.

How is the current Occupy movement similar to and different from with the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968? The key common thread is a feeling of injustice that there are some in America who are profiting as others struggle to reach a livable income. Each movement is petitioning its government and public opinion to remedy the unfairness in our society.

Theoretically the Occupy movement has a much larger constituency, the 99% of the American population that are not in the top 1%. The 1968 Poor People’s March was an effort to take that portion of the population below the poverty level (perhaps 20%) to a level which might be regarded as “just getting by.”

One of the criticisms of the Occupy movement is that there is no single leader; not even a group of leaders. The Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 was an effort by Dr. King and colleagues to organize poor people from throughout the country to meet in our most desperate pockets of poverty such as Quitman County, Mississippi and marching to Washington, DC to petition their government. Along the way they would pick up others who were also struggling for food and shelter.

The Poor People’s Campaign suffered a blow far beyond any hardship that the Occupy movement has endured to date. Dr. King was assassinated just as the marches to Washington, DC were beginning. On the evening of his death, over 100 cities across the nation burst into flames. The rioting continued for nearly a week. America was fragmented. Dr. King was actually assassinated just four days after the National Advisory Commission in Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission ) reported to President Johnson that urban riots in the mid-1960s. The seminal line of the report was “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

Hauntingly, Dr. King called the Report “a physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.” The report illustrated that while that the Poor People’s March was not just about economic disparity; it was also about racial segregation. There may be undercurrents of racial tension in the current Occupy movement, but they play a very secondary role to economic considerations.

Following Dr. King’s death, it was decided to set up a temporary community of poor people in the nation’s capital. As has been the case with the Occupy movement, many others provided support for the demonstrators. I had the good fortune to be a volunteer for the dozen or so individuals in Resurrection City who were from St. Louis, MO. Twice a week, we would go food shopping for them and inevitably get other necessities as they were required. However, the efforts of volunteers was no match for the weather. It rained almost non-stop for two weeks to the point where the community had to be dismantled, not because the police forced people to leave but because it was in fact an unhealthy quagmire unfit for any kind of human habitation.

Not far from what became known as Resurrection City is the National Archives Building. Inscribed on the building is the phrase “What is past is prologue.” Resurrection City is part of the historical past from which the Occupy movement can learn.

Regrettably the Poor People’s Campaign did not succeed in wiping our poverty in the U.S. The Vietnam War continued to drain resources for seven years. Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” was put on hold as Richard Nixon had other priorities.

The Poor People’s Campaign did not succeed in fulfilling Dr. King’s dream to enact Franklin Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights for all Americans. As the Occupy movement grows and crystalizes its thinking, it would be beneficial to learn lessons from the Poor People’s Campaign. One is that a strong and benevolent leader can be very helpful. Two is that a clear mandate for economic fairness is essential. Let’s not have this movement fail and then look back on it forty years later wondering what had happened.