The Unfinished Business of the Poor People’s Campaign
Organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Poor People’s Campaign addressed the issues of economic justice and housing for the poor in the United States.
The campaign would help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to start to a solution by gathering in Washington DC in the spring of 1968. Under the "economic bill of rights," the Poor People's Campaign asked for the federal government to prioritize helping the poor with a $30 billion anti-poverty package that included a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure and more low-income housing.
King told his aides that the SCLC would have to raise nonviolence to a new level to pressure Congress into passing an Economic Bill of Rights for the nation’s poor. When reporters asked King about the campaign’s tactics, he focused on the moral dimensions of the crisis.
“America is at a crossroads of history, and it is critically important for us as a nation and a society to choose a new path and move upon it with resolution and courage… In this age of technological wizardry and political immorality, the poor are demanding that the basic needs of people be met as the first priority of our domestic program,” he said.
The Poor People’s Campaign held firm to the movement’s commitment to non-violence. “We are custodians of the philosophy of non-violence,” King said at a press conference. “And it has worked.”
Poverty afflicted a diversity of races, regions and backgrounds. Campaign organizers recruited from Mississippi to Illinois, and people of all walks of life came from across the nation. Early on, King sought help from AFSC, citing his gratitude for “the devotion, cooperation and help accorded us in the past by the AFSC.”
As AFSC and other organizers from 10 cities and five rural areas strategized and gathered supplies, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The SCLC and other leaders decided to continue the campaign in King’s honor. A month later on May 12, 1968, demonstrators began a two-week protest in Washington, D.C., among them the AFCS’s Stephen Cary and two dozen Quakers.
The same month thousands of poor people of all races set up a shantytown known as “Resurrection City.” The city was closed down in mid-June, many were arrested, including Stephen Cary, and the economic bill of rights was never passed.