Can Dr. King’s 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign Rise Again?

A revival of Dr. King’s 1968 Poor People Campaign was just announced by Rev. William Barber II, set for its 50th anniversary next year.

And just in time for that launch is the newly-published 50th Anniversary edition of Uncertain Resurrection, my account of the 1968 campaign, and how it ended in disaster for the movement. Can the second try be more successful?

What happened to the PPC in 1968? “Uncertain Resurrection” [ordering information here] tells the gripping story of the noble but failed effort by Dr. Martin Luther King’s associates to carry out his last, most ambitious campaign of activism in the months after his assassination in April 1968.

Rev. Barber announces plans for the new PPC in Washington in early December, 2017.

The Poor Peoples’ Campaign went beyond demanding civil equality for one racial group; it called for a broad multiethnic effort to end poverty and reverse militarism.

Yet despite a huge initial outpouring of goodwill and concrete help, the collapse of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign was complete. Its end marked a major setback to civil rights and social activism in the U.S., with ramifications that lasted for years.

This book, based on original, first-hand reporting, was initially published in 1969. But until the campaign’s 50th anniversary approached, that turbulent summer near the Capitol had been largely forgotten.


Now this saga is again timely, even urgent, as the political establishment is tearing at the safety nets, but being confronted by an upsurge of protest and struggle. More of us are challenging growing economic inequality, the rise of racial extremism, and the relentless spread of militarism.

A theme for the new PPC.

This book offers a unique chance to learn from the experience of their forerunners and have a more substantial and lasting impact.

“Uncertain Resurrection” is an indispensable case study of how badly the best intentions of even highly-talented and dedicated people can go wrong. Its concise, suspenseful narrative shows how an ill-starred crusade that was aimed at advancing peace and justice, took shape in the wake of murder and riot, and marched into a maelstrom of confusion and chaos.

Yet its example has helped keep hope alive.

Chuck fager reporting on the Poor Peoples Campaign in Washington, summer 1968.

An excerpt from Uncertain Resurrection, Chapter One:

The overall strategic outline for the Campaign was roughly as follows: Several thousand poor people would converge on Washington and settle there in a highly visible shantytown. A brief series of exploratory demonstrations would culminate in a one-day mass rally of liberal forces.

Then the Campaign would get down to business in the form of arrest-provoking nonviolent disruption of government operations. As the campers trooped to jail by the hundreds they were to be joined by hundreds, even thousands more, including students from the nation’s colleges and blacks from the Washington ghetto, whose indignation at the spectacle of poor people going to jail for protesting their plight would be mobilized into action by SCLC’s organizers.

The arrests were expected to focus widespread sympathy and attention on the marchers’ cause, especially among black people around the nation. This sympathy would be the base for the Campaign’s next phase: nationwide boycotts of selected industries and big-city shopping areas, supported by continuing demonstrations and arrests in the capital and elsewhere. These boycotts were expected to prod business leaders into pressuring Congress to meet the Campaign’s demands, pressures the legislators would be unable to resist. . . .
Similarly new was Dr. King’s attempt to forge a coalition among poor people of different ethnic groups, probably the most serious effort of its kind since the 1930s Depression. Dr. King traveled thousands of miles in the early months of 1968, meeting and negotiating with prominent Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians and poor whites. He seemed, in those last weeks, to be making real progress towards bringing them together under the Campaign’s banner.
Another major innovation was the shift of focus implied in the Campaign’s goal of ending poverty. Dr. King’s earlier movements were based on appeals to reasonably well-defined constitutional guarantees: the right to vote, equal protection of the laws, freedom of assembly and petition, etc.

But, as James Bevel, one of King’s best strategists, put it, “There’s nothing unconstitutional about children starving to death.” . . .

Thus, while with the Poor People’s Campaign he was shooting for bigger stakes and expected to encounter much stiffer opposition than he had in his other movements, Dr. King felt that anything less would be insufficient. He was planning to bring into play nonviolent weaponry of much larger caliber than he had used before.

The groundwork for the movement was almost finished at the time of his last trip to Memphis, and Dr. King had every reason to feel that when the April 22nd kickoff day arrived, he and SCLC would be ready.

By the time his funeral was over and the rage of riots and city fires had subsided, the date for opening the Campaign had nearly arrived.

The SCLC staff was staggering under the weight of their loss and the almost continuous labor it made necessary. But they decided to go ahead with the Campaign, now seen as the most appropriate memorial to Dr. King, as nearly according to plan as possible. . . .

This decision was to prove an unfortunate one. An event like Dr. King’s murder would have debilitated any small, leader-oriented group; it was especially hard on SCLC because, as Action Director Hosea Williams was fond of saying, “We are a movement, not an organization.”

The executive staff apparently was gambling that, once settled in Washington, the Campaign would proceed roughly according to their strategic scenario, and that the staff would overcome their fatigue and grief sufficiently to carry it off.

The gamble was lost almost as soon as it had been made. . . .

Uncertain Resurrection is available as an inexpensive paperback and an electronic edition. [Ordering information here

 

7 thoughts on “Can Dr. King’s 1968 Poor Peoples Campaign Rise Again?”

  1. This may not be at all the sort of feedback that helps, but I attended a local march and lecture by Rev. Barber this spring. On a pleasant day in a poor city, few turned out, and his message, while true, was more scolding than inspiring. I’m afraid the poorer you are, the less free time and energy you have for such actions. And it seems ending poverty is a vaguer and less widely supported goal in the U.S. I hope I’m wrong about that, but that’s my impression of recent efforts.

    1. Dee, I’m very interested in your observations. While I admire Rev. Barber & have supported his work here in NC, it’s by no means clear whether his local stature will travel well. Moreover, it’s also by no means clear that there is a meaningful infrastructure & network to support the ambitious program he’s announced. It turned out that Dr. King’s staff had much the same problem in 1968, though much of the context was different. Even in NC, surveys showed that Barber’s core of support was older white liberals from the bubble culture of several Democratic counties clustered around the capital, Raleigh — e.g., moi). We made lots of noise, and I’m proud to have been part of it, but it has yet to spread beyond the narrow base of four or five counties out of 100, nor has it yet shaken the foundations of the overwhelming rightwing dominance here. My sense of Barber has been that he is too smart to believe all the gee-whiz news copy churned out about him by mostly out-of-town journalists; but there he is, trying to revive & multiply this rather narrow base, supported by a small circle of seminary & nonprofit radicals who may have a bundle of foundation cash to burn through. I won’t make predictions, but am watching to see how it goes. Meantime, I’m pretty confident in my account of the 1968 fiasco, and think it could be useful to Barber & others.

  2. Chuck, thanks for this. I was in Africa when this all happened so didn’t really know much about it. It is also interesting to compare this with the occupy movement of a few years ago.

  3. 1968 was most memorable year in my life. I had 3 children ages 17, 14, and 12. My 12 year old son was volunteering for Humphrey. The 14 and 17 year olds were very involveds in keeping in touch with civil rights…family discussions at dinnertime were about the 1968 election…I was unaware of
    the specifics of your involvement with ML King and I look forward to reading your book. I was totally involved in volunteering for Eugene McCarthy for President…doing vigils against the Vietnam War…and being disappointed with Johnson and Humphrey’ lack of courage…and the killing of JFK..and the bravery of MLK and Mohammed Ali in opposition to the war. that year’s politics were as dysfunctional as 2016/7. I have never recovered from the lost opportunities…most memorable year of my life . I still have faith in our struggles against evil..Jesus said “Love one another”. May that day come.

    1. Yeah, Joan: 1968 = trauma. Hasn’t been that bad for me since then, I think, til 2016/7. What craziness is coming next? Meantime, one foot in front of the other.

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