Poor People’s Campaign of 1968

A grassroots movement that linked economic justice, poverty, unemployment, and homelessness to the broader Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s. While the campaign may have made a statement, it failed to produce any legislation.

Collaboratively organized by Martin Luther King, Martin Luther, Jr.King, Jr., and other activists in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Poor People’s Campaign is best understood within the context of American business history as an attempt to illuminate the moral and political links between economic justice and participatory citizenship in American democracy. King and other organizers extended their earlier campaigns against racial segregation and white supremacy to confront what they viewed as problems of economic segregation and class supremacy.Poor People’s Campaign (1968)

Organizing for the Poor People’s Campaign began in late 1967, with plans for building Resurrection CityResurrection City as a model tent-city, self-governed by poor and homeless residents. Other strategies included a mass march on Washington, D.C., pushing to improve low-income housing and antipoverty programs, and working to guarantee full employment and a livable level of income. The campaign was delayed after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, but in May of 1968, Resurrection City was raised on the Washington Mall.

The Poor People’s Campaign emphasized persisting structural inequities in the economy. These problems affected all of America’s working poor, unemployed, and homeless, and the campaign drew people from all regions of the country. Organizers expanded the scope of civil rights work to include multiracial coalition building along class lines. Resurrection City included poor white, Native American, and Latino residents. Solidarity Day, a mass demonstration held on June 19, 1968, at the Lincoln Memorial, drew thousands of activists from around the country and aimed to replicate the visual spectacle and national impact of the 1963 civil rights march on Washington. However, Solidarity Day failed to spark a national campaign of support, and soon afterward, the residents of Resurrection City were evicted and the Poor People’s Campaign was shut down.

Historians differ in their interpretations of the successes and failures of the Poor People’s Campaign. Researchers, including Robert T. Chase, have argued that by extending the scope of the Civil Rights movement to issues of poverty, unemployment, and economic justice, the campaign alienated white liberals in the movement, including those in the business community, who may have supported racial desegregation but were less sympathetic to basic structural changes in the economy. Others point to tensions among organizers and participants or to American denials of “class politics.”

Although the Poor People’s Campaign did not directly produce any legislation, some experts believe that it sparked some governmental reforms: food distribution to poor communities, congressional action to support low-income housing, and increased funding for economic opportunity. However, the question posed by the campaign–whether Americans have the collective will to eliminate persistent poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and economic segregation–remains unanswered.

Further Reading

  • Chase, Robert T. “Class Resurrection: The Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and Resurrection City.” Essays in History 40 (1998). Notes how the expansion of the scope of the Civil Rights movement may have alineated white liberals.
  • Garrow, David. Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004.
  • Jackson, Thomas F. From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

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