Originally organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Poor People's Campaign was born from a push for economic justice in the civil rights era and is now impacting policies and elections at every level of government.
"The original Poor People's Campaign was a fusion movement for economic justice that grew out of the civil rights movement," says Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Poor People's Campaign steering committee member, via email. "Natives, Chicanos, poor whites from Appalachia, and welfare rights organizations from northern cities joined Black folks from the South to demand an economy that works for everyone. That coalition won some real gains with the War on Poverty, the Fair Housing Act, and the legislative advocacy of the Children's Defense Fund."
According to Smithsonian Magazine, President Lyndon Johnson "declared his war on poverty" in 1964, a year in which 19 percent of Americans (about 35 million people) lived below the poverty level. King was motivated to call for representatives from various geographic and racial groups to "demand federal funding for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, anti-poverty programs and housing for the poor."
How the Campaign Began
In November 1967, King and the staff of the SCLC met and decided to launch a Poor People's Campaign to highlight and find solutions to many of the problems facing poverty-stricken people in the United States. The initial objective was to address rampant economic inequalities with nonviolent direct action in a widespread form of civil disobedience known as the Poor People's March. King, however, was assassinated before the culmination of the organization's efforts took place. Following his death, King's longtime friend, Ralph Abernathy, led the march, which included an estimated 50,000 demonstrators walking from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, as well as speeches from Abernathy, vice president Hubert Humphrey, Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, and King's widow, Coretta Scott King.
While the original movement led to some major societal wins, as Wilson-Hartgrove points out, it was also met with a fair amount of opposition. Five days after the march, authorities closed the temporary camp demonstrators had erected (known as Resurrection City) that stood on a 16-acre (6.47-hectare) site on the National Mall near the Lincoln Memorial. Over 100 residents were arrested when they refused to leave the site and others, like Abernathy, were arrested during a demonstration at the U.S. Capitol building. Wilson-Hartgrove says the aftermath of the initial event was disheartening. "Poor People's demands were silenced by a public narrative that blamed poor people for their problems."
While the blowback could have stopped the organizers in their tracks, Wilson-Hartgrove says those at the core of the Poor People's Campaign were unfazed. "Over the past decade, many grassroots organizations have intensified their efforts to expose the fundamental lie that the world's largest economy cannot afford to meet the basic needs of all of its people," he says. "Several of those efforts began to gain national attention in 2013 when Moral Mondays, the Fight for $15, and Black Lives Matter all emerged during the same summer as grassroots coalitions of people taking direct action to reclaim democracy for the common good. They were challenging the same entrenched powers as movements that were building to address immigrant justice, environmental justice, Native land rights, homelessness and public education."
The Poor People's Campaign Today
Originally known as the Poor People's Campaign, the modern incarnation of the movement is officially known as Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Wilson-Hartgrove says the addendum is significant to today's continued struggles for justice and equality. "Revival is an alternative to reform," he says. "One of the things that our current moment has revealed is that various efforts to reform our system haven't worked. It's still killing us. It's killed 140,000 people, at this writing, through a failed response to COVID. It's killing more African-Americans through police murders than were lynched at the height of Jim Crow's terrorism in the South. And it's killing still more people from poverty. For too long, America has been comfortable with this level of death. And it has killed something inside of us. It has hardened our collective heart. Our call for revival is a call to choose life — to refuse to be comfortable with the level of death our current system tolerates. It is a call to reconstruct the system, to re-make the world we are living in to reflect love and justice and mercy."
Several modern leaders have been credited with the continuation of the efforts put forth by the Poor People's Campaign, including Reverend William J. Barber II and Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, who serve as co-chairs for the Poor People's Campaign. Wilson-Hartgrove says the organization began to invite the emerging grassroots movements into a "national moral fusion coalition to connect the visionary work of our elders in the 1960s with the 'leader-ful' moments of today." The overarching goal of the organization, he says, has always been to win justice for poor people by shifting "the moral narrative in the country from the distortions of the culture war and the politics of left versus right to the moral fundamental question of whether we are living up to our deepest constitutional and moral commitments."
In 2020, sparked by the murders of Black men and women like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained massive momentum — a phenomenon Wilson-Hartgrove says ties directly to the Poor People's Campaign. "People who have witnessed police brutality and mass incarceration's disproportionate impact on African Americans cry 'Black Lives Matter' as a way of naming systemic racism as a dehumanizing reality," he says. "Their organizing to demand change in places like Ferguson has been exceptional, and many people from those grassroots movements have been part of the Poor People's Campaign's coalition building since we officially re-launched the campaign in 2018. It's important to remember that Rosa Parks was organizing against police brutality in Detroit, Michigan, in 1968, when the original Poor People's Campaign came to Washington. So a challenge to racist policing has always been a part of this movement."
While anti-racism has historically been at the root of the organization's mission, the magnitude of recent protests indicates an unprecedented wake-up call to many. "The mass demonstrations on America's streets since the lynching of George Floyd have helped millions of Americans see that we must address systemic racism," Wilson-Hartgrove says.
The protests have shown the effectiveness of mass nonviolent demonstrations to shift public opinion. And they have led many people who have marched to ask the next question: What changes are needed in our public life to address systemic racism? We have said all along that we can't address systemic racism apart from poverty, environmental degradation, militarism, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. So a lot of people have come into the coalition grateful for an analysis that can make the connections between issues, an agenda that makes clear what's needed and a budget that shows how we could do it now if we had the political will," says Wilson-Hartgrove.
As for how the movement plans to continue its efforts during this election year and beyond, Wilson-Hartgrove says organizers will only ramp up their already-intense efforts. "On June 20, we brought together nearly 3 million people online to hear the stories of the people who are building this campaign and to demand that people running for public office in this election year hear their vision for how we could re-make our life together," he says. "Just this past week, we took that policy platform to Congress. Over the next few weeks, we will be taking it to the Democratic and Republican Conventions. We are telling the politicians what the people need, and we are asking them to commit now to what they are willing to do. Through our state campaigns, we will continue to grow the campaign by registering people for a movement that votes. We've done the research and know that, nationwide, poor and low-income people vote at rates much lower than higher income groups. But we also know of places where just a 5 to10 percent increase in low income voters could shift the political landscape, forcing politicians to listen to the needs of everyday Americans. So we are inviting people to do that work of educating and mobilizing their neighbors, and folks can sign up to do that wherever they are."