Ready for Revival: A History of the Poor People’s Campaign

December 7, 2017

Martin Luther King Jr quote

A New March on Washington

Imagine thousands of people from impoverished and underserved communities marching on Washington to demand better jobs, fair wages, and access to education. Imagine them taking their demands all around the country, meeting with leaders and local officials, rallying support, building a movement that unites people of all races in the fight for a better life.

That was Dr. Martin Luther King’s last dream. He called it the Poor People’s Campaign, and it’s the effort he poured all his energy into during the last year of his life. Sadly, it may also be one of the factors that led to his assassination. In fact, it may be the thing that got him killed.


“All Colors and Backgrounds”

King first announced his plans for the Poor People’s Campaign at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) retreat in November 1967. While he saw his work in civil rights as essential, he came to regard the struggle to end segregation and overturn voting restrictions in the Jim Crow South as a first step in creating a “new era of human rights.”

‘‘This is a highly significant event,’’ King told SCLC delegates at an early planning meeting, describing the campaign as ‘‘the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.”

King’s belief that what united the poor of all races was more powerful than that which had divided them was an early example of what came to be known as intersectionality. He understood that they had a better chance of succeeding if they stood together than if each group fought an individual battle alone.


Resurrection City

But King paid a price for shifting his focus from civil rights issues in the South to a broader mission that sought to unite all poor people in the US against policies that benefited the wealthy and powerful while leaving them, their families, and their communities behind. His popularity plummeted during the last years of his life, and his antiwar stance, which he articulated in public for the first time in a speech titled Beyond Vietnam, proved particularly controversial.

King was assassinated a year to the day after he gave that speech, on April 4, 1968, while in Memphis, TN, rallying with striking sanitation workers. His allies in the SCLC were determined to follow through on his campaign plans, so the Poor People’s March on DC went ahead just weeks later. 50,000 protestors came to the capital. Many set up tents on the National Mall and stayed for more than a month, despite rain, mud, and heat, creating a temporary encampment they dubbed Resurrection City.


The Dream Lives On

The march on Washington proved to be the only mass movement of King’s original campaign, but its legacy persists. And despite his death, King’s dream lives on. In his final Sunday sermon, he said “we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”

Well, here we are 50 years later, and the gap between the rich and the poor, between “promise and fulfillment,” has only grown larger. Our military spending continues to skyrocket. And racism, of course, has never gone away. We need a new Poor People’s Campaign, and we need it more than ever.


A National Call for Moral Revival

Our friend and partner, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, has been called “the closest person we have to Martin Luther King, Jr., in our midst,” so perhaps it should come as no surprise that he has stepped forward to revive and renew King’s unfinished work for the 21st century.

Barber’s New Poor People’s Campaign arose from grassroots efforts over the past decade to combat “systemic racism, poverty, militarism, environmental destruction, and related injustices” with the goal of building “a just, sustainable, and participatory society.” Barber and his allies have been traveling the country, learning from local organizations, reaching out to vulnerable communities, and rallying supporters. “This is not a commemoration” of King’s work, Barber has said. It’s all about building a long-term movement to change the country, to “shift our national moral narrative.”

Barber changed the course of North Carolina politics with his Moral Mondays protests (when he was the president of the NC NAACP), so he knows all about grassroots movement building. And he knows also that these issues transcend the politics of division. “This is not about left versus right,” he’s said. “There are certain things that are not left, right, but they are the center of authentic moral values—like love, like justice, like mercy, like caring for the least of these.”


Let’s Come Together Now

We stand with Rev. Barber and his vision of “reviving the heart of our democracy” community by community, state by state. Imagine what we can accomplish when we see what we have in common, when we refuse to be divided, when we work toward fairness and justice and equality—together.

Dr. King once said, “I choose to identify with the underprivileged. I choose to identify with the poor. I choose to give my life for the hungry. I choose to give my life for those who have been left out.” When we help those who need it the most, our entire country benefits. Join the New Poor People’s Campaign today and help America fulfill its promise.