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Eyes on the Prize
The Story of the Movement — 26 Events

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Poor People's Campaign

1968

"....We are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power."
—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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In 1967, one in seven Americans lives in poverty. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference embarks on an ambitious Poor People's Campaign to bring attention to the nation's most needy people. In response to black rioting in 180 cities during the summer of 1967, Martin Luther King says, "the riot is the language of the unheard... America has failed to hear... that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met." Economic inequities are the next target for the movement. Activist Marian Wright suggests to King that the movement stage a poor people's march in Washington, D.C., and SCLC begins planning to bring "a nonviolent army of the poor" to the nation's attention. They are joined by the National Welfare Rights Organization.

In the midst of organizing, King detours to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he is assassinated on April 4, 1968. Riots erupt around the country as people mourn the loss. The SCLC presses forward with the Poor People's Campaign just weeks later, settling people on the National Mall in an encampment they call "Resurrection City." Jesse Jackson leads protesters in direct actions around the city, and in chants of "I am somebody." However, the protest fails after heavy rains and unclear agendas bog down the participants. In the midst of their efforts, word comes that presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, a champion of civil rights, has been assassinated in California. In recognition of the poor people's protest, the hearse bearing Kennedy's body is brought through the encampment in Washington. The spirit has gone out of people, and soon Resurrection City is shut down.

Context

Other Events: Early 1968

The Prague Spring, a period of liberalization of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, begins on January 5, but will end in August with the arrival of Soviet troops.

Columbia University student protesters take over campus administration buildings.

Eugene McCarthy does exceedingly well in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. As dissent and debates about the Vietnam War intensify, President Lyndon B. Johnson will decline to run for reelection.

"Hair" premieres on Broadway, depicting a Vietnam War draftee's interactions with a group of hippies. The show spawns hit songs including "Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In."

Pope Paul VI issues an encyclical restating the Catholic Church's position barring all use of birth control, including the pill.

Feminists picket the Miss America Contest.

Press

The Washington Post, April 26, 1968

Letter to the Editor: "Moral Equivalent March"

...Poverty exists and is there to be seen by anyone who wishes to see it. The problem, however, is that all too few, including members of the Congress, wish to see the problem...

...The Poor People's Campaign may serve the useful purpose of forcing citizens to look at a problem they choose to ignore. If people honestly cared about the poverty problem, there would be no need for such a campaign...

George Sigel, M.D.
Washington

The Chicago Defender, April 27-May 3, 1968

'Poor People's March' is Big Challenge for Abernathy

The Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy is a man with a heavy burden on his shoulders...

...he has the challenge of keeping the freedom struggle strong and healthy, without letting it turn into an interracial brawl, on the one hand, or allowing it to fade away, on the other.

Can this be done, without Dr. King as SCLC president?...

...The new SCLC leader challenged white America to honor Dr. King by liberating black Americans, and all the poor, black and white...

...The forthcoming "Poor People's March" on Washington -- April 29 -- is seen as a part of the strategy for alleviating poverty....

...During the campaign, SCLC officials and scores of others will call on Congressmen and government officials to discuss their demands that poverty be eased and racism ended...

The Chicago Defender, June 22-28, 1968

Poor People's March a Giant Step
Civil Rights Movement 'Gets Itself Together'

In the jargon of the civil rights movement, the poor people's campaign has "gotten itself together" and won new life.

More than 50,000 Americans, black and white together, put fresh blood in the weary life of Resurrection City, USA, Wednesday in the peaceful march to the Lincoln Memorial...

...There have been some successes already for the campaign; changes in agriculture department food surplus programs, vast national publicity for the campaign's issues, and some stirrings in Congress to meet at least some of the campaign's demands.

The failures revolve mostly around [Rev. Ralph] Abernathy's troubles within the SCLC, heading off scramblings by some of the chief aides who want more authority, and dealing with his own need to establish himself as a leader...

...When Abernathy is asked about friction between Negroes and Mexican-Americans at the shantytown, he tries to point out that the issue "is not Resurrection City, but poverty."

As [Rev. Andrew] Young put it: "Resurrection City is populated by the poor. The poor are sick, dirty and unorganized at home. They are here too."

The Louisville Courier Journal, June 25, 1968

Time to End Poor March

After such brave beginnings and bright achievements, it is saddening to see the Poor People's Campaign end on an ugly and bitter note, with the remnants of the marchers being driven from Resurrection City by police...

...It would have been far better, for the marchers and for the mood of the troubled country, had the effort ended on the high note of last Wednesday's Solidarity Day march....

...But the old ideals and sound purposes so movingly articulated on Solidarity Day could too easily be obscured in the public mind by the kind of incidents that have threatened since to become commonplace in Resurrection City. The violence, the squabbling, the defection of leaders, the petty theft could become identified as typical of the whole effort and of the people behind it.

The Poor People's march... was not intended and not designed to become a continuing lobby for the poor. And it would be a betrayal of its high purpose to let it devolve into a public nuisance, a televised eyesore, an argument for those who would denigrate the efforts of the poor.

Music

Oh Freedom
Songwriter: Traditional, adapted by SNCC
Performed by: Hollis Watkins
Listen to the Music

Everybody's Got a Right to Live
Songwriter: Pete Seeger, with additional lyrics by F. D. Kirkpatrick
Performed by: Jimmy Collier and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick
Listen to the Music

Some freedom songs had been in use for decades as a means of protest, and often songs borrowed rhythms or structures from other songs.

And before I'll be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave.

These lines from "Oh Freedom" had been sung as long ago as 1906, when race riots exploded in Atlanta. Newspapers had published unsubstantiated reports of four assaults on white women by black men (in later years, hysteria over similar accusations would land the Scottsboro Boys in jail and leave Emmett Till dead).

"Oh Freedom" was used as a protest song through the 1960s. The rhythm of that couplet is found in another song, Pete Seeger's "Everybody's Got a Right to Live":

And before this campaign fail
We'll all go down in jail.

Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, organizer of the Poor People's Campaign, was also a performer and songwriter. He added new verses to Seeger's song to reflect the events of the Poor People's Campaign.

For more on music and the movement, read comments by Bernice Johnson Reagon.

Music courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, www.si.edu/ folkways.

Video

Poor People's Campaign
Duration: 2:10 min
Watch the Video

The first clip is of Reverend Martin Luther King describing Operation Breadbasket.

Next is footage of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy announcing King's assassination while on the campaign trail.

Civil rights organizer Jesse Jackson then describes the consequences of King's death.

Footage provided by BBC MOTION GALLERY.

Select an image to open the gallery.

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