Updated: Nov 4, 2020
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was designated a federal holiday in 1983 to commemorate the life and work of the civil rights activist. In light of our current focus on alleviating poverty, it’s worth reflecting on King’s anti-poverty efforts, a lesser known aspect of his legacy that was tragically cut short because of his assassination in 1968.
King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? laid out his vision for an America with an Economic Bill of Rights for the nation’s poor, including better housing, education, jobs, guaranteed basic income and support for families.
While invoking radical ideas about redistribution and overhauled work and welfare programs are politically unfeasible, Where Do We Go From Here is a rallying cry about the nation’s moral crisis — which is even more relevant today at a time when inequality exceeds levels seen in 1968 and are likely at their worst since before the Great Depression.
In 1968, King was organizing a new March on Washington called the “Poor People’s Campaign” where 1 million people would gather and occupy a tent city in the National Mall to put an image to the poverty crisis, which affected 20% of Americans at the time. His campaign in the lead-up to the march brought together leaders and activists of all races and faiths—from African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American communities, as well as white Americans—to demand better living conditions and higher wages.
King was assassinated just weeks before the march, but organizers decided to continue with the march under the leadership of civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy Sr. In May 1968 they set up a 3,000-person protest camp, Resurrection City, on the Washington Mall and stayed for six weeks, bearing witness to the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy (himself a seminal voice behind King’s decision to organize the Poor People’s Campaign March). The results of the march were mixed, and King’s demands went largely unaddressed by the Nixon administration and Congress, but the march achieved subtle gains over time, such as increased funding for free and reduced lunches and Head Start programs in Mississippi and Alabama; expanded food stamps across the country; and significant exposure for activist groups to key allies based in the nation’s capital.
Fifty years after the original march, the Poor People’s Campaign was revived in 2018 through forty days of nonviolent direct action that culminated in a march on D.C., which brought together over 10,000 people. Their picking up King’s baton extends beyond the march to include active engagement with all levels of government across the country. And we as individuals have the power to continue King’s work that he was not allowed to fully develop in his lifetime. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was designated a national day of service in 1994—we hope that you take the opportunity to reflect on ways that you can serve your community and fight for economic justice at the polls, at rallies, through your representatives, and through donating your time and skills to non-profits looking to give everyone a chance for a better tomorrow.
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