A year before his assassination, Martin Luther King gave a speech at the 1967 Southern Christian Leadership Conference, calling for the next wave of civil rights activism to focus on uplifting the nation’s poor. Only then, he asserted, would greater strides in civil rights be made.
“It is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights… In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society,” Dr. King said. His words now encompass the mission of the revitalized Poor People’s Campaign. Their most recent activism includes a “national call for moral revival” in this country.
Shortly after Dr. King was assassinated, the original Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 mobilized in Washington, D.C. A shanty-town was built between the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument, deemed “Resurrection City.” The encampment housed 3,000 people for six weeks, protesting and organizing against poverty in America.
The platform of the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 called for $30 billion in government funds put towards a legitimate war on poverty, a Congressional passage of a guaranteed annual wage and full employment, as well as the construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year until slums were eradicated. On June 19th, 1968, 50,000 people joined the residents “Resurrection City” to protest in Washington, D.C.
It takes a lot to sustain a movement of that magnitude, and while the original Poor People’s Campaign did make progress, they didn’t experience the complete overhaul of poverty they had hoped for. According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 43.1 million Americans were still living in poverty in 2016.
The new Poor People’s Campaign has engaged in 40 days of civil disobedience that have connected tens of thousands of activists across 30 states. Their call for moral revival is “necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy,” as stated on their website. They aim to turn a “war economy” into a “peace economy.”
Essentially, the Poor People’s Campaign of today is working towards the same goal as the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, shifting focus back to the millions still residing in poverty in the U.S., which, on a moral level, should not be tolerated.
William J. Barber, a minister and activist from North Carolina, serves on the national board of NAACP and was previously the president of the organization’s North Carolina chapter until he stepped down to lead the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign. Writing for The Atlantic, Barber notes that the top 400 taxpayers in this country make an average of $97,000 an hour, at the same time as people are “arrested for protesting because they can’t survive on $7.25 an hour.” Barber argues that this country isn’t just facing a crisis of poverty, but a crisis of morals.
The idea that we are still fighting the same fight against poverty as in 1968 may seem outlandish to some, but it’s the truth. Wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living, and the wealth gap is larger than ever. A 2017 CNN explains that the top 1% hold 38.6% of the nation’s wealth (up from 33% in 2007), while the bottom 90% hold only 22.8% (in comparison to 28.5% in 2007).
Rev. Cleophus Smith worked for the Memphis sanitation department in 1968 when workers went on strike following the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death on the job. Today, he still works for the same department that sparked a larger movement for fair wages and working conditions, and by default a movement against racism.
“We’re fighting for the same exact thing sanitation workers fought for 50 years ago,” Frances Holmes, a fast-food worker and activist in St. Louis tells Vox. “We can’t end poverty or stamp out racism in this country unless everyone can earn a wage they can live on and has the right to protest. And we will keep on striking, protesting, and even risking arrest until that dream becomes a reality.”
Cover image via Al Jazeera.0