MLK Jr’s Poor People’s Campaign is Needed More Than Ever in 2018

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Those famous words spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are ingrained into America’s collective consciousness, cementing his historic legacy as a revolutionary Civil Rights activist. Far fewer, however, are aware of another key pillar of King’s dream for a more just America.

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

It is his fierce condemnation of poverty that led King, in coordination with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), to launch the Poor People’s Campaign on December 4, 1967. The SCLC leadership organized a march on Washington D.C., similar to King’s earlier Civil Rights march, except this time poor people of all races from across the country would create a giant tent city on the National Mall, dubbed Resurrection City, until their anti-poverty demands were met.

The protesters were asking the federal government to pass a $30 billion anti-poverty package pushing for full employment, guaranteed income and more low-income housing (among other things).

In a tragic blow to the campaign, which was set to be launched on April 22, 1968, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4. The launch was postponed until May 12 and while 7,000 protesters were present at the campaign’s peak, that was far lower than the estimated 50,000 people organizers were expecting. In another shocking blow, prominent supporter Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated just two weeks before the once-promising campaign fizzled out.

Even though the Poor People’s Campaign did not achieve their policy goals, they provided the perfect framework for us to follow today. By bringing together poor people of all backgrounds behind a common set of economic ideals, we can finally end the scourge of poverty. That is necessary more than ever in 2018.

America is the world’s wealthiest nation, yet there are 5.3 million citizens who live on $4 a day or less. There are more vacant houses than there are homeless people, yet a 2017 study found that there were 550,000 people sleeping on the streets in a single night. The 2016 U.S. Census found that nearly 27 million Americans still lack health insurance, while a Commonwealth Fund report found that an additional 41 million people struggle to afford their healthcare even with insurance. Millions are suffering while the top 1 percent of Americans owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined, a figure more unequal than anytime in the past 50 years.

The problem is so severe that the United Nations sent Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on a 15-day tour across America to see these impoverished communities firsthand. What he witnessed left him shocked.

In Lowndes County, Alabama, Alston visited a community where “raw sewage flows from homes through exposed PVC pipes and into open trenches and pits.” A 2011 UN report found those type of conditions to be widespread in the county, with the Alabama Department of Public Health estimating that 40–90 percent of households have inadequate septic systems — or none at all. The conditions are so unsanitary that hookworm, a disease common in the developing world but thought to be eradicated in America, was present in more than 1 out of 3 Alabamans sampled in Lowndes County.

This kind of poverty in the world’s wealthiest nation is unacceptable. Reverend William Barber seeks to follow MLK Jr.’s blueprint to change that.

“We need a moral movement to revive the heart of American democracy and build a Third Reconstruction for our time. This work is not easy, and it will not be completed quickly. But we know what is required to move forward together,” Barber wrote in an editorial for Think Progress.

On Mother’s Day 2018, almost exactly 50 years after the launch of the original Poor People’s Campaign, Barber has planned a revival. For six weeks, activists from across the country will engage in non-violent civil disobedience to call attention to the plight of poor people — along with issues relating to racism, militarism and ecological destruction.

This resurgence is long overdue. Half a century has gone by, yet the problems of extreme poverty that the original Poor People’s Campaign spoke of ring true more than ever. It is time for Americans of all backgrounds to stand together and demand the eradication of poverty so that MLK Jr.’s dream can finally be realized.

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