Black History Month: Poor People’s Campaign (December 4, 1967-June 19, 1968)

  • Fighting for change: the Reverend Ralph Abernathy and other demonstrators from the Poor People’s Campaign

February is Black History Month. Throughout this month The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history.

The Poor People’s Campaign was created on December 4, 1967 by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to address the issues of unemployment, housing shortages for the poor and the impact of poverty on the lives of millions of Americans. Unlike earlier efforts directed towards helping African-Americans gain civil rights and voting rights, the SCLC and its leader, Martin Luther King Jr, now addressed issues that affected all who were poor, regardless of racial background.

Its immediate aim was to secure federal legislation, ensuring full employment and promoting the construction of low-income housing to raise the quality of life of the nation’s impoverished citizens.

The SCLC planned a nationwide march on Washington on April 22, 1968 to focus the country’s attention on this issue and, particularly, to pressure Congress to pass legislation to address the employment and housing issues. Unlike earlier marches, SCLC leaders planned the creation of Resurrection City, a giant tent city on the Mall in Washington, where demonstrators would remain until their demands were met.

When Dr King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, movement leaders debated whether to go forward with the planned demonstration. They chose to continue the march, with King’s lieutenant, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, as its new leader. The march date was postponed to May 12, 1968, although a few hundred people arrived in Washington on the original date. The first week, May 12 to 19, brought a wave of nearly 5,000 demonstrators. During the second week, Resurrection City was completed.

The protesters, people from a wide range of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds — Native Americans from reservations, Latinos from the southwest, impoverished whites from West Virginia, as well as rural and urban blacks — came together and spread the message of the campaign to various federal agencies. They also disrupted life in Washington to try to force the Government to respond. At its peak, the number of protesters reached nearly 7,000, but still far short of the expectation of 50,000 people.

The march was also marred by weather and leadership divisions. An unusual downpour of rain made the ground turn to mud, causing the tents to weaken and eventually forcing people to leave. Tension among the demonstrators themselves caused violent outbreaks and undermined the effectiveness of the Poor People’s Campaign leadership.

The assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy, a presidential aspirant and one of the campaign’s principal supporters in Congress, on June 5, 1968, sealed its fate.

Resurrection City closed two weeks later on June 19, 1968.

Sources: Nina Mjagkij, Organising Black America: An Encyclopaedia of African-American Associations (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc, 2001);poorpeoplescampaignppc.org/HISTORY.html