[sixties-l] Fwd: The Poor People's Campaign of 1968

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Date: 10/08/00

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    Date: Sun, 1 Oct 2000
    From: Art McGee <amcgee@igc.org>
    Subject: The Poor People's Campaign of 1968
    Essays in History (University of Virginia)
    Class Resurrection:
    The Poor People's Campaign of 1968 and Resurrection City
    1998 (Volume 40)
    Robert T. Chase, George Mason University(?)
    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
    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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