As you may recall, I was fortunate enough to attend one of Antoinette Harrell's poverty tours in February. The one I went on involved the Mississippi Delta region near Marks, where Martin Luther King, Jr., kicked off his Mule Train for the first Poor People's Campaign in 1968. It was a life-changing experience. Even my post about it generated attention from a wide range of readers, including, for example, a producer from Al Jazeera in Washington, D.C.
Harrell co-founded, with Boston city planner Ines Soto-Palmarin, an organization they call "Gathering of Hearts" and on Friday, June 19th, Gathering of Hearts will host an all-day event in Lambert, Mississippi, intended to raise national awareness of the condition of the people who still live there in much the same type of financial crisis that drew Martin Luther King's attention in the first place.
King's original focus, of course, was racial inequality and in the mid-1960's, he was riding a huge wave of public support on that issue. Then, on April 4, 1967, King delivered a speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam” at New York City’s Riverside Church. It outlined, as only King could, exactly how he had come to feel about the war in Vietnam and about the government’s practice of allocating funds to the military “with alacrity and generosity” while turning to the poor with “hostility,” divvying out poverty funds with “miserliness.” Those that agreed with his stance were thrilled, but there were many who turned a jaundiced eye on his foray into a much less clear-cut political arena not seen as directly related to de-segregation issues.
Determined to address this major root cause of inequality and pain in the nation, King moved shortly into talking – loudly and eloquently – about the many abjectly poverty-stricken in the U.S., whether African-American or not. Soon, he was including Latinos, Native Americans, and even poor Whites from the Appalachian mountains in his discussions about what was wrong in America and what needed to be done about it. He had never left them out entirely, but now he spoke not as a Black leader of Black people, but as an American leader of poor people. And there are those who believe that this is what cost him his life.
Soon, King and the other founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Council were deep in discussions planning a Poor People's Campaign that would give a voice to a “multicultural army of the poor.” Senator and Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy instructed Marion Wright (now Edelman) to tell Dr. King to bring the poor to Washington, to make them visible. And King answered the call.
By the time he and the other SCLC leaders reached Memphis in April of 1968 to support a strike by the sanitation workers for better conditions and the right to unionize, the decision had already been made to take a mule train from Marks, Mississippi, to Washington, D.C., to demand a Poor People’s Bill of Rights. King called the Campaign the “second phase” of the civil rights movement and massive government jobs programs, affordable housing, and a guaranteed annual income for the poor were only the beginning of what was going to be presented as non-negotiable expectations. The Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.” But the day after King arrived in Memphis, he was shot and killed, insuring that he would never see the Poor People's Campaign become a reality.
Photo by Laura Jones
Undaunted, the multicultural army King had enlisted gathered and made the trek to Washington in May, where 50,000 marchers established a shanty town they named Resurrection City. With 2000 to 5000 residents, Resurrection City had a sewer system, health care, schools and even a mayor, the Rev. Dr. Ralph David Abernathy. Each day began with a demonstration at the Department of Agriculture and then various groups would descend on the office of their primary interest. At night, musicians would entertain. Jimmy Collier sang. Peter, Paul and Mary showed up. Even Pete Seeger made an appearance.
But an almost incredible amount of rain soon turned the City into a mud hole of soggy despair that no musician could brighten. And by the time government bulldozers rolled into the camp on June 24th, many, if not all, of the residents were doubtless relieved, though broken-hearted that the Poor People's Campaign, valiant effort that it was, had joined the one who conceived it as only a historical note.
Nevertheless, one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s many memorable quotes is: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it always bends toward justice.” And so it is, that, 41 years after the first Poor People's Campaign, Gathering of Hearts has stepped up to the plate to re-awaken history by calling for a new commitment by a new Presidential administration to the old problem of poverty – even deep, deep poverty – in the United States.
The new Poor People's Campaign will begin with a poverty tour from 9:00 a.m. until noon on Friday, June 19th. Anyone who wants to participate should meet before 9:00 a.m. at the Quitman County Elementary School on Highway 3 South in Lambert, Mississippi. A Public Hearing at that same school from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. will feature speakers such as the Rev. Dr. Al Sampson (one of the planners of the original Poor People's Campaign); long-time organizer Dr. John Perkins of the John M. Perkins Foundation; Snoop Dogg's father, Vernell Varnado; and Nation of Islam Student Minister Ava Muhammad. For more information about the poverty tour or the afternoon press conference event, call 985-229-8001.
The Southern Christian Leadership Council has organized an SCLC fundraiser breakfast and a Poor People's Campaign march in Jackson, Mississippi, for the following day, Saturday, June 20th. For more information about these events, call 404-522-1420.