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Chapter 31: The Poor People's Campaign

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

We have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We are still called upon to give aid to the beggar who finds himself in misery and agony on life's highway. But one day, we must ask the question of whether an edifice which produces beggars must not be restructured and refurbished. That is where we are now.

  • May 31, 1967 At an SCLC staff retreat King calls for a radical redistributionof economic and political power
  • December 4 Launches the Poor People's Campaign
  • March 18, 1968 Speaks to striking sanitation workers in Memphis
  • March 28 Leads Memphis march that is disrupted by violence

    In November 1967 the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership, Conference held one of the most important meetings we ever convened. We had intensive discussions and analyses of our work and of the challenges which confront us and our nation. At the end, we made a decision: the SCLC would lead waves of the nation's poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968 to demand redress of their grievances by the United States government and to secure at least jobs or income for all.

    We had learned from hard and bitter experience in our movement that our government did not move to correct a problem involving race until it was confronted directly and dramatically. It required a Selma before the fundamental right to vote was written into the federal statutes. It took a Birmingham before the government moved to open doors of public accommodations to all human beings. What we now needed was a new kind of Selma or Birmingham to dramatize the economic plight of the Negro, and compel the government to act. 

    We would go to Washington and demand to be heard, and we would stay until America responded. If this meant forcible repression of our movement, we would confront it, for we have done this before. If this meant scorn or ridicule, we embrace it for that is what America's poor now receive. If it meant jail, we accepted it willingly, for the millions of poor were already imprisoned by exploitation and discrimination. But we hoped, with growing confidence, that our campaign in Washington would receive a sympathetic understanding across our nation, followed by dramatic expansion of nonviolent demonstrations in Washington and simultaneous protests elsewhere. In short we would be petitioning our government for specific reforms, and we intended to build militant nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty. 

    We intended to channel the smouldering rage and frustration of Negro people into an effective, militant, and nonviolent movement of massive proportions in Washington and other areas. Similarly, we would be calling on the swelling masses of young people in this country who were disenchanted with this materialistic society and asking them to join us in our new Washington movement. We also looked for participation by representatives of the millions of nonNegro poor-Indians, MexicanAmericans, Puerto Ricans, Appalachians, and others. And we welcomed assistance from all Americans of goodwill. 

    And so, we decided to go to Washington and to use any means of legitimate nonviolent protest necessary to move our nation and our government on a new course of social, economic, and political reform. In the final analysis, SCLC decided to go to Washington because, if we did not act, we would be abdicating our responsibilities as an organization committed to nonviolence and freedom. We were keeping that commitment, and we called on America to join us in our Washington campaign. In this way, we could work creatively. against the despair and indifference that so often caused our nation to be immobilized during the cold winter and shaken profoundly in the hot summer.

    New tactics which do not count on government goodwill

    The policy of the federal government is to play Russian roulette with riots; it is prepared to gamble with another summer of disaster. Despite two consecutive summers of violence, not a single basic cause of riots has been corrected. All of the misery that stoked the flames of rage and rebellion remains undiminished. With unemployment, intolerable housing, and discriminatory education, a scourge in Negro ghettos, Congress and the administration still tinker with trivial, halfhearted measures. 

    Yet only a few years ago, there was discernible, if limited, progress through nonviolence. Each year, a wholesome, vibrant Negro selfconfidence was taking shape. The fact is inescapable that the tactic of nonviolence, which had then dominated the thinking of the civil rights movement, has in the last two years not been playing its transforming role. Nonviolence was a creative doctrine in the South because it checkmated the rabid segregationists who were thirsting for an opportunity to physically crush Negroes. Nonviolent direct action enabled the Negro to take to the streets in active protest, but it muzzled the guns of the oppressor because even he could not shoot down in daylight unarmed men, women, and children. This is the reason there was less loss of life in ten years of Southern protest than in ten days of Northern riots .... 

    I agree with the President's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders that our nation is splitting into two hostile societies and that the chief destructive cutting edge is white racism. We need, above all, effective means to force Congress to act resolutely-but means that do not involve the use of violence. 

    The time has come for a return to mass nonviolent protest. Accordingly, we are planning a series of such demonstrations this spring and summer, to begin in Washington, D.C. They will have Negro and white participation, and they will seek to benefit the poor of both races.

A Testament of Hope

The nation waited until the black man was explosive with fury before stirring itself even to partial concern. Confronted now with the interrelated problems of war, inflation, urban decay, white backlash, and a climate of violence, it is now forced to address itself to race relations and poverty, and it is tragically unprepared. What might once have been a series of separate problems now merge into a social crisis of almost stupefying complexity. 

I am not sad that black Americans are rebelling; this was not only inevitable but eminently desirable. Without this magnificent ferment among Negroes, the old evasions and procrastinations would have continued indefinitely. Black men have slammed the door shut on a past of deadening passivity. Except for the Reconstruction years, they have never in their long history on American soil struggled with such creativity and courage for their freedom. These are our bright years of emergence; though they are painful ones, they cannot be avoided.


Find a way to put pressure on them

We know from past experience that Congress and the President wouldn't do anything until we developed a movement around which people of goodwill could find a way to put pressure on them, because it really meant breaking that coalition in Congress. It was still a coalition-dominated, ruraldominated, basically Southern Congress. There were Southerners there with committee chairmanships, and they were going to stand in the way of progress as long as they could, They got enough right-wing Midwestern or Northern Republican to go along with them. 

This really meant making the movement powerful enough, dramatic enough, morally appealing enough so that people of goodwill-the churches, labor, liberals, intellectuals, students, pool people themselves-began to put pressure on congressmen to the point that they could no longer elude our demands. 

Our idea was to dramatize the whole economic problem of the poor. We felt there was a great deal that we needed to do to appease to Congress itself. The early demonstrations would be more geared toward educational purposes-to educate the nation on the nature of the problem and the crucial aspects of it, the tragic conditions that we confront in the ghettos. After that, if we had not gotten a response from Congress, we would branch out. And we were honest enough to feel that we weren't going to get any instantaneous results from Congress, knowing its recalcitrant nature on this issue, and knowing that so many resources and energies were being used in Vietnam rather than on the domestic situation. So we didn't have any illusions about moving Congress in two or three weeks. But we did feel that, by starting in Washington, centering on Congress and departments of the government, we would be able to do a real educational job.

We called our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we felt that the economic question was the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, were confronting. There was a literal depression in the Negro community. When you have mass unemployment in the Negro community, it's called a social problem; when you have mass unemployment in the white community, it's called a depression.

We would begin activity around Washington, but as that activity was beginning, some people would be talking to Washington. Some would be coming on mules to Washington. Some would be in their buggies being pulled by the mules. And we would have a mule train, all moving toward Washington, so that we would have forces moving out of the SouthMississippi joining forces with Alabama, Alabama joining with Georgia, Georgia joining with South Carolina, South Carolina with North Carolina with Virginia, and right on into Washington. Other forces would be coming up out of Chicago and Detroit and Cleveland and Milwaukee, others coming down from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore - all moving toward Washington.

We would place the problems of the poor at the seat of government of the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind. If that power refused to acknowledge its debt to the poor, it would have failed to live up to its promise to insure "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" to its citizens. If this society fails, I fear that we will hear very shortly that racism is a sickness unto death.

The American people are infected with racism - that is the peril. Paradoxically, they are also infected with democratic ideals-that is the hope. While doing wrong, they have the potential to do right. But they do not have a millennium to make changes. Nor have they a choice of continuing in the old way. The future they are asked to inaugurate is not so unpalatable that it justifies the evils that beset the nation. To end poverty, to extirpate prejudice, to free a tormented conscience, to make a tomorrow of justice, fair play, and creativity-all these are worthy of the American ideal.

We have, through massive nonviolent action, an opportunity to avoid a national disaster and create a new spirit of class and racial harmony. We can write another luminous moral chapter in American history. All of us are on trial in this troubled hour, but time still permits us to meet the future with a clear conscience.

We have the power to change America and give a kind of new 14tality to the religion of Jesus Christ. And we can get those young men rind women who've lost faith in the church to see that Jesus was a serious man precisely because he dealt with the tang of the human amid the glow of the Divine and that he was concerned about their problems. He was concerned about bread; he opened and started Operation Breadbasket a long time ago. He initiated the first sit-in movement. The greatest revolutionary that history has ever known. And when people tell us when we stand up that we got our inspiration from this or that, go back and let them know where we got our inspiration.

I read Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto years ago when I was a student in college. And many of the revolutionary movements in the world came into being as a result of what Marx talked about.

The great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge. You don't have to go to Karl Marx to learn how to be a revolutionary. I didn't get my inspiration from Karl Marx; I got it from a man named Jesus, a Galilean saint who said he was anointed to heal the brokenhearted. He was anointed to deal with the problems of the poor. And that is where we get our inspiration. And we go out in day when we have a message for the world, and we can change this world and we can change this nation.

A great movement in Memphis

During one week in March 1968 1 made about thirty-five speeches. I started out on Thursday in Grosse Point, Michigan. I had to speak four times in Detroit on Friday. Saturday I went to Los Angeles. I had to speak five times. Then on Sunday I preached in three churches in Los Angeles. And I flew from there to Memphis.


And I'm simply saying this morning, that you should resolve that you will never become so secure in your thinking or your living that you forget the least of these . . . . In some sense, all of us are the least of these, but there are some who are least than the least of these. I try to get it over to my children early, morning after morning, when I get a chance. As we sit at the table, as we did this morning in morning devotions, I could'nt t pray my prayer without saying, "God, help us, as we sit at this table to realize that there are those who are less fortunate than we are. And grant that we will never forget them, no matter where we are." And I said to my little children, "I'm going to work and do everything that I can do to see that you get a good education. I don't ever want you to forget that there are millions of God's children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don' t want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be."

From sermon on January 7, 1968

As I came in to Memphis, I turned around and said to Ralph Abernathy, "They really have a great movement here in Memphis." The issue was the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happened to be sanitation workers. One thousand three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and Memphis was not being fair to them. They were demonstrating something there that needed to be demonstrated all over our country. They were demonstrating that we can stick together and they were demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down. The Negro "haves" must join hands with the Negro "have-nots." And armed with the compassionate traveler's check, they must journey into that other country of their brother's denial and hurt and exploitation. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage is in the final analysis as significant as the physician, for if he doesn't do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.

Now let me say a word to those of you who are on strike. You have been out now for a number of days, but don't despair. Nothing worthwhile is gained without sacrifice. The thing for you to do is stay together and say to everybody in this community that you are going to stick it out to the end until every demand is met, and that you are going to say, "We ain't gonna let nobody turn us around." Let it be known everywhere that along with wages and all of the other securities that you are struggling for, you are also struggling for the right to organize and to be recognized.

We can all get more together than we can apart. And this is the way we gain power. Power is the ability to achieve purpose, power is the ability to affect change, and we need power. And I want you to stick it out so that you will be able to make Mayor Loeb and others say "Yes," even when they want to say "No."

Now the other thing is that nothing is gained without pressure. Don't let anybody tell you to go back on the job and paternalistically say, "Now you are my men and I'm going to do the right thing for you. Just come on back on the job." Don't go back on the job until the demands are met. Never forget that freedom is not something that is voluntarily given by the oppressor. It is something that must be demanded by the oppressed. Freedom is not some lavish dish that the power structure and the white forces in policy-making positions will voluntarily hand out on a silver platter while the Negro merely furnishes the appetite. If we are going to get equality, if we are going to get adequate wages, we are going to have to struggle for it . . . .

You know Jesus reminded us in a magnificent parable one day that a man went to hell because he didn't see the poor. His name was Dives. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who came daily to his gate in need of the basic necessities of life and Dives didn't do anything about it. And he ended up going to hell. There is nothing in that parable which says that Dives went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. It is true that one day a rich young ruler came to Him talking about eternal life and he advised him to sell all, but in that instance Jesus was prescribing individual surgery, not setting forth a universal diagnosis. If you will go on and read that parable in all of its dimensions and its symbolism you will remember that a conversation took place between heaven and hell. And on the other end of that long distance call between heaven and hell was Abraham in heaven talking to Dives in hell. It wasn't a millionaire in hell talking with a poor man in heaven, it was a little millionaire in hell talking with a multimillionaire in heaven. Dives didn't go to hell because he was rich. His wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus. Dives went to hell because lie allowed Lazarus to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which lie lived. Dives went to hell because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war against poverty.

And I come by here to say that America too is going to hell if she doesn't use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God's children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell. I will hear America through her historians, years and generations to come, saying, "We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. We built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our space ships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths." It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, "Even though you have done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not. I was naked and you clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security and you didn't provide it for them. And so you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness." This may well be the indictment on America. And that same voice says in Memphis to the mayor, to the power structure, "If you do it unto the least of these of my children you do it unto me .

. . . Having to live under the threat of death every day, sometimes I feel discouraged. Having to take so much abuse and criticism, sometimes from my own people, sometimes I feel discouraged. Having to go to bed so often frustrated with the chilly winds of adversity about to stagger me, sometimes I feel discouraged and feel my work's in vain.

But then the holy spirit revives my soul again. In Gilead, there is balm to make the wounded whole. If we will believe that, we will build a new Memphis. And bring about the day when every valley shall be exalted. Every mountain and hill will be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.