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Faculty Reflection: MLK's Poor People's Campaign

Peter Hatala, Director of Curriculum and Innovation
In January 1968, just three months before he was killed, Martin Luther King spoke to a small multi-racial group of people dedicated to launching what became known as the Poor People’s Campaign. In that meeting, Dr. King said: “We are assembled here together today with common problems. Bringing together ethnic groups that maybe have not been together in this type of meeting in the past. I know I haven’t been in a meeting like this. And it has been one of my dreams that we would come together and realize our common problems. Power for poor people will really mean having the ability, the togetherness, the assertiveness, and the aggressiveness to make the power structure of this nation say yes when they may be desirous to say no.”

While perhaps not among King’s most powerful quotations, or a demonstration of his immense skill as a persuasive orator, this quotation resonates with me because it captures in plain language where King had intellectually and organizationally arrived in the last years of his life. In response to what he described as the “three major evils”– the evil of racism, the evil of poverty, and the evil of war– King had announced the Poor People’s Campaign by 1967, specifically to address the plight of America’s poor of all races.  After years of struggle and legislative victories in the form of civil rights legislation, he wanted to push even further to radically transform American society. In terms of strategy he sought, in his words, a “middle ground between riots on the one hand and timid supplications for justice on the other,” and planned for thousands of poor people to march on Washington, D.C., southern states and northern cities to pressure elected officials to deliver jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children. King wrote that, “the poor, both white and Negro, live in a cruelly unjust society,” and on the basis of this shared experience they could unite across racial lines for common purpose. King knew through study of luminaries like WEB DuBois, that such a shared multi-racial struggle and cooperation would reduce or eradicate the racism harbored by whites– a racism long promoted by the wealthy and powerful to divide and conquer the black and white poor and working class alike. 

This work, however, wasn’t just for the poor and the Poor People’s Campaign wasn’t just comprised of poor people. The beloved community he sought– a community that would preference the plight of the poor and our common, shared humanity- could and should be extended to all. And so his movement was, in a sense, an invitation to be part of a counter-cultural microcosm reflecting the way the world should be, no matter one’s background or identity: wealthy or poor, black and white. This points to the other foundation on which King sought to establish unity: on the basis of our universal and shared humanity. In the reverend King’s eyes, a reverend, it should be noted, with a Ph.D. in theology, we are all children of God, made in his image. Agape, a Greek term found in the New Testament connoting the highest levels of self-sacrificial love, should permeate human relations as we seek to inaugurate a “beloved community” where love, justice, and solidarity would finally be actualized in society. 

King didn’t say “our unique identities and personal narratives preclude us from sharing spaces together and doing the hard work of solving common problems.” He didn’t suggest that our differences are greater than our similarities. No, he called for a breaking down of barriers and new forms of solidarity. 

So how might this affect us today? We all possess the immense privilege of learning or working in a high school with a yearly tuition that is equal to the median household income in America and which is $20,000 more than the median household income in our own city of Troy. While we may not be poor, we live in an America in which 40% of adults wouldn't be able to cover a $400 emergency. In which nearly 45,000 Americans die each year from lack of healthcare. In which the top 1% of households hold more wealth than the bottom 50% combined. And these trends are not improving. Unemployment rates from COVID, with little governmental help on the horizon, have skyrocketed, and yet we continue to spend more on our military than the next 10 top spenders combined. King would say our national priorities are not in order. So, what should we do? Feel guilty? Publicly disavow our privilege on the internet? Drop out of private school and ask our parents to give the savings to the poor? I don’t think that’s realistic or productive.  I think Dr. King would exhort us to act humbly in solidarity with the poor– to center their plight, their trials, and their reality. To use our power for good, because to whom much is given, much is expected. To this end, we might support the new Poor People’s Campaign led by Rev. William Barber of North Carolina, or a similar organization which carries on King’s legacy and that seeks to address the root causes of poverty. We might organize to support the movement for a living wage, for national healthcare, or for a reduced military budget and a tax structure that ensures a just distribution of wealth. We might do what so many among us do– perform acts of charity and kindness only known to ourselves and the recipient of these acts. From the smallest act of kindness to massive social restructuring, there is something we can all do. 

And why do it? Because justice demands our action, no matter who we are or where we’re from. Poverty and deprivation should tug on our conscience - eliciting an innate compassion that spurs us to action. More practically speaking, we know that societies with extremes of wealth and poverty become deeply unstable and volatile societies. 

And, because, as King said, “In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.” 
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    • Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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