50th Anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Launch of the Poor People’s Campaign

This year, San Francisco will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love.

However, in cities such as Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, this summer will be the 50th anniversary of urban rebellion. The Civil Rights Movement helped the Black middle class, but the impoverished urban Black communities did not gain much, and thus led to the urban uprisings of 1967. These insurgencies and the resulting Poor People’s Campaign organized by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. signaled a broader poverty problem in the United States that continues today.

King was inspired to organize the Poor People’s Campaign because of the urban unrest of 50 years ago coupled with the rural poverty he witnessed in places such as Marks, Mississippi.  Poverty was truly a national problem across racial groups and in urban and rural America. He announced the Poor People’s Campaign in December 1967. However, Dr. King did not live to see his goal of the Poor People’s Campaign to organize mass civil disobedience actions in the nation’s capital scheduled for May 1968 demonstration in Washington, D.C. He was assassinated one month before the scheduled mass action in the capitol on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, as he was supporting the Memphis sanitation workers strike for safer working conditions and better wages. Due to Dr. King’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in the capital was postponed a month later to June 1968.

The national poverty rate in 1967 at the time of Dr. King’s announcement of the Poor People’s Campaign was 14.2 percent. The poverty rate for children at 16.6 percent was higher than the national rate. For African Americans, the poverty rate was much higher at 39.3 percent. Within the African American community, seniors had a poverty rate of an astonishing 53.3 percent. Although there are no 1967 poverty statistics for the Latina/o population, the United Farm Workers (UFW) led by Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers made common cause with Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. The UFW was organizing farm workers across California and the west to improve upon their starvation wages and deplorable working conditions.

“I choose to identify with the underprivileged.  I choose to identify with the poor.  I choose to give my life for the hungry.  I choose to give my life for those who have been left out…This is the way I’m going.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The highlight of the Poor People’s Campaign in the capitol was the Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace and Freedom on June 19, 1968. Fifty thousand people from across the country descended upon the capitol to join the 3,000 inhabitants of Resurrection City, a shantytown base of operations for the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. Poor People’s Campaign demonstrators came to Washington, D.C. via nine roads to Resurrection City. One of these regional groups making the trek was called the “San Francisco Caravan.” A central policy demand promoted by the Poor People’s Campaign was an economic bill of rights that included: an annual $30 billion anti-poverty expenditure; full employment; guaranteed annual wage; and annual construction of one-half million affordable housing units addressing the lack of high quality housing.

Due to the assassination of Dr. King, there is unfinished business from the Poor People’s Campaign. Poverty has only decreased from 14.2 percent in 1967 to 13.5 percent in 2015. The overall number of those in poverty was a significant 43.1 million people in 2015. Incredibly, child poverty has increased since 1967 at 16.6 percent to a child poverty rate in 2015 of 19.7 percent. We in San Francisco must demonstrate our love and solidarity for our impoverished neighbors, not only during the summer, but year-round. Fifty years later, San Francisco must join in with a renewed “San Francisco Caravan” with others from across the country calling for a New Poor People’s Campaign.