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This Day in Labor History: May 21, 1968

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On May 21, 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign began setting up its encampment in Washington, D.C., called Resurrection City. Attempting to go on after the assassination of Martin Luther King while he marched with the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, this last goal of King’s would tell Americans just how tough the poor had it in this country. But it ultimately failed without his leadership, demonstrating both the limited commitment of civil rights leaders to labor issues and the increasing impatience both the Johnson administration and the public had with grassroots movements demanding continued civil rights and economic reforms by 1968.

By 1967, Martin Luther King had largely broken with the Johnson administration, first on Vietnam and then on the War on Poverty. With Johnson now consumed by the war, the War on Poverty staggered. King, deeply affected by his Chicago urban housing campaign of 1966, saw the common interests of the poor across the nation and wanted to transition into combining the civil rights and poverty movements. In doing so, he continued distancing himself from much of the rest of the middle-class minister-led wing of the civil rights movement that largely saw their goal post-1965 as consolidating their recent legal gains and working with the president who had pushed for those laws.

King announced the Poor People’s Campaign at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff retreat in November 1967 and it received a public announcement on December 4. For King, this was a way to continue his nonviolent campaigns with a more direct action feel in the era of black power and urban riots. It intended to bring at least 2000 poor people of all races from around the nation to Washington, DC to demand federal anti-poverty programs. That included African-Americans from the South and from northern cities, Chicanos from the Southwest, Puerto Ricans from New York, Native Americans, and white Appalachians. King called it “the beginning of a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” At the core of it was that African-Americans and other poor people would never have dignity in this nation without economic security.

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The immediate goal of the campaign was to secure a full employment bill. The march itself was intended to begin on April 22, 1968. But King was assassinated on April 4.

After King’s assassination, the SCLC decided to go through with the campaign in King’s honor, with Ralph Abernathy leading it. An impressive array of social movement leaders participated. That was especially true in the Mexican-American community as Chicano pioneers Reies Lopez Tijerina, fresh off the shootout at Tierra Amarilla, and Corky Gonzalez led around 1000 Latinos from the Southwest. Unfortunately Tijerina and Abernathy really took an extremely strong dislike to one another and that helped lead to some fairly significant racial tension in the camp. Native Americans came and protested at the Supreme Court for fishing rights, where Tijerina supported an aggressive protest that smashed some of the building’s windows, which Abernathy despised. White Appalachian residents brought a specific class-based critique to the movement as they were white yet still isolated from dominant society. The camp tried to revive the cultural protest of the early 60s through song. Folk singers like Pete Seeger and Guy Carawan were there, as were Native American chanters, singers of Mexican-American folk songs, old-timey Appalachian singers and others. But the conditions were not really right for a successful protest and with the Johnson Administration largely ignoring the protests and the absence of King looming, the campaign struggled.

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It didn’t help that conditions in the camp were not good, not so surprising given that Washington DC is a wet city built on a swamp. Ben Gilbert of the Washington Post:

The grassy parkland turned to trampled mud, ankle-deep, with some puddles of water hip-deep. The plywood homes were soaked. Washed clothes would not dry. Dampness and surprisingly low temperatures for May and June chilled the nights. Mud seeped in everywhere. Moving from place to place meant sloshing around in water and mud. Trash, rotting food, discarded clothing, packing boxes, cans, and liquor bottles slowly sank into the mud throughout the encampment. Huge oil drums, crammed with refuse, burned day and night. Their smoky stench carried all the way downtown and through the surrounding parkland and Mall area.

Without King’s vision, the movement really lacked the power to create change. But it certainly was the greatest attempt to create a truly multiracial coalition for economic justice during the civil rights era. The media largely criticized Abernathy for the movement’s failure, but the reality is that even if King lived, the white middle-class liberals who had provided the political support in northern states necessary to pass legislation were declining in influence, distracted by Vietnam and other issues of the late 60s, and disturbed by the demands African-Americans were making of them, such as jobs programs and the end of de facto segregation at work and in schools.

Certainly the AFL-CIO largely sitting the Poor People’s Campaign out did not help. All too typically of the Meany-era federation, organized labor did not do enough to support anti-poverty movements. Some union leaders were helpful, particularly Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers. The United Steelworkers of America also actively supported the campaign. But by and large the AFL-CIO did not take the full employment goals seriously, even though doing so would have made all the sense in the world. As King had rejected Vietnam and based this campaign in part on how the expense of Vietnam was undermining the War on Poverty, George Meany just could not really support it as he refused to acknowledge that Vietnam had any negative domestic consequences. This is a moment where a full commitment from organized labor could have made a real difference in expanding the welfare state and improving the lives of the nation’s poor. But unfortunately that was not the fundamental interest of AFL-CIO leadership in 1968.

The protests ended in failure on June 24. Resurrection City itself was dismantled on June 19. There has never been a coordinated multiracial alliance of the poor to descend on the capital since.

This is the 144th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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