Date: Sun, 1 Oct 2000 From: Art McGee <firstname.lastname@example.org> Subject: The Poor People's Campaign of 1968 PUBLICATION: Essays in History (University of Virginia) TITLE: Class Resurrection: The Poor People's Campaign of 1968 and Resurrection City DATE: 1998 (Volume 40) AUTHOR: Robert T. Chase, George Mason University(?) FULL ESSAY: <http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/journals/EH/EH40/chase40.html> EXCERPT: Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's (SCLC) successor to the slain Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began the Poor People's Campaign of 1968 with the proclamation that "the poor are no longer divided. We are not going to let the white man put us down anymore. It's not white power, and I'll give you some news, it's not black power, either. It's poor power and we're going to use it." The Poor People's Campaign (PPC) was a convergence of racial and economic concerns that brought the poor, including those who were black, white, Indian, and Hispanic to live in shantytowns and demonstrate daily in Washington, D.C. from May 14 until June 24, 1968. The PPC was conceived by Dr. Martin Luther King, but, unfortunately, was not led by him. Dr. King was murdered on April 4, 1968 while campaigning with striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. His death helped to ensure that the Poor People's Campaign would be a failure. In Dr. King's stead, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, King's longtime friend and SCLC's vice president, led and organized the PPC. While the press criticized Abernathy and the SCLC executive staff for their poor management of the campaign, other contributing factors to the campaign's demise remain unexamined. The failure of the Poor People's Campaign extended beyond questions of leadership and tactics. Ultimately, the PPC failed because the traditional constituency of the Civil Rights movement -- the white, middle-class, liberals -- was repulsed by the goals of the campaign itself. Bringing the poor together as a racial amalgamation of similar interests and goals heightened the issue of class in America and, consequently, Americans came to view the Civil Rights movement as an instrument questioning the legitimacy of America's economic system and its capitalistic "way of life." The failure of the Poor People's Campaign to win substantial anti-poverty legislation does not, however, deny its historical importance. On the contrary, its failure holds the key to its significance. Journalists who covered the campaign failed to notice that the PPC's incorporation of class issues and economic goals caused a change in the perception of the Civil Rights movement among white, middle-class, liberals. Similarly, current Civil Rights scholarship has largely ignored the Poor People's Campaign, treating it only as an afterthought and an epilogue to a dwindling Civil Rights movement. The PPC's first chronicler, Charles Fager, bolstered the popular opinion among the press that the PPC failed because of Abernathy's inept leadership. While the conventional wisdom is correct that "a basic restructuring of the relationship between SCLC and its white liberal constituency was probably inevitable upon Abernathy's elevation," shouldering Abernathy with the campaign's failure falls short of a full understanding of the PPC and its effect on the Civil Rights movement. Although Abernathy may have been, as campaign chronicler Charles Fager has argued, "a blurred and less-refined echo of his Atlanta mentor," Martin Luther King, the PPC failed because of its economic goals as much as its management. Had King survived his assassin's bullet, he might have found that the lofty goals of the PPC were incongruous with the continuation of white, liberal, middle-class support. Historian Geoffrey Hodgson found that the success of the 1963 Civil Rights march in Washington, D.C. depended on the base of a "liberal consensus" comprising both blue-collar labor democrats and a collection of liberal intellectuals and press, policy makers, progressive minded businessmen, church leaders, and students. Hodgson described the philosophy of this "liberal consensus" as the belief that "American capitalism was a revolutionary force for social change, that economic growth was supremely good because it obviated the need for redistribution and social conflict, that class had no place in American politics."5 Hodgson argued that in 1963 the Civil Rights movement was still in agreement with the ideals of the "liberal consensus:" "At the time of the March on Washington, in August 1963, the Civil Rights movement was still seen as the culminating affirmation of the liberal faith... There was nothing in the movement's ideas, at that stage, that contradicted liberal orthodoxy, and its aims were championed by the whole breadth of the liberal consensus: White House, labor, churches, intellectuals, and the more modern-minded sectors of business. Its goal was to integrate black people more closely into white society. In the fall of 1963, it was still generally thought that this could be done without challenging white society, as a consequence, in any way." By 1968, however, the PPC's march on Washington incorporated economic goals of class-based equality that fractured and challenged the ideology of the "liberal consensus." The result was that the "liberal consensus" that supported King in 1963 rebuffed the PPC's efforts in 1968. By examining the Poor People's Campaign as an attempted class rather than racial movement, this work intends to substantiate Professor Manning Marable's contention that "effective power is never exercised solely by a single race, but by a dominant social class. Thus Black political movements are simultaneously movements that seek to restructure or radically transform class relations." In order to evaluate the PPC as an attempted class-based movement, this work focuses on the involvement of the campaign's non-African American minorities. The purpose of the following essay is threefold. The first is to show that the inclusion of Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and poor white Appalachian people marked the change of the Civil Rights movement from goals of racial equality to ideas of economic change and confrontation. Of course, white liberals and other minorities had previously participated in the Civil Rights movement, but never before had the concerns of non-African American minorities been incorporated into the actual goals of the movement itself. The inclusion of other minorities into the Poor People's Campaign signaled the end of the Civil Rights movement and the beginning of a prolonged fight for an expanded welfare system. The second purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that by 1968 African Americans were left with the choice between "black power" to create a more separate and empowered black community or integration through the inter-racial movement of poor people to achieve a new socioeconomic policy in the United States. Stokely Carmichael, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and proponent of "black power," commented that the difference between SCLC and SNCC was between "mobilizing versus organizing." As Hodgson has concluded "to mobilize meant to rely, in the last analysis, on white help. To organize meant to stand or fall by what black people could do for themselves." Therefore, the "mobilizing" philosophy of the SCLC depended on white, liberal, middle-class support for the PPC. When that support failed to materialize, the PPC failed as a movement. The result was that without King and without white, liberal, middle-class support, the PPC inadvertently served as notice to the black community that integration had not worked. Thus, with King gone and the PPC a failure, the SCLC lost credibility as the forefront Civil Rights organization causing the black community to lose its primary organizational alternative to "black power." The essay's third purpose is to demonstrate that the campaign's economic goals of wealth redistribution fractured the Civil Rights movement's traditional, liberal, white, middle-class constituency. Historian Scott Sandage enthusiastically claimed that the Civil Rights movement succeeded by using the image and national memory of Abraham Lincoln to create "an inter-racial politics of memory, placing blacks at the center of the American story by juxtaposing them with its noblest hero." In the process, the Civil Rights movement was able to "successfully portray their adversary as un-American." The Poor People's Campaign of 1968, however, contributed to the failure of the Civil Rights movement precisely because it attempted to embrace class solidarity while advocating economic goals that conflicted with the value of American capitalism. Therefore, the PPC, not its adversaries, was ultimately seen as "un-American."
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