Martin Luther King Jr.: The Poor People’s Campaign

by Bob Schwartz

Participants in the Poor People’s Campaign walk peacefully toward the Capitol in Washington, June 24, 1968.

“We are coming to Washington in a Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, we are going to bring the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. … We are coming to demand government address itself to the problem of poverty.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

Late in his too-brief life, Martin Luther King Jr. expanded his powerful focus from the inequities of race in America to the inequities of class. In December 1967, he announced the plan to bring together poor people from across the country for a new march on Washington, to demand better jobs, homes, education. It was to be the Poor People’s Campaign.

In March 1968, King went to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. He addressed those workers on March 18:

And I come by here to say that America too is going to hell if she doesn’t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell. I will hear America through her historians, years and generations to come, saying, “We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. We built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our space ships we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our submarines we were able to penetrate oceanic depths.” It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, “Even though you have done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not. I was naked and you clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security and you didn’t provide it for them. And so you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.” This may well be the indictment on America. And that same voice says in Memphis to the mayor, to the power structure, “If you do it unto the least of these of my children you do it unto me.
Martin Luther King Jr., March 18, 1968

King did not live to see the campaign begin in May 1968. He was assassinated on April 4. His inspired message and activism is as significant as it was more than fifty years ago. The inequities in America transcend identity and race. Addressing those inequities is not just an American or religious ideal—it is a commandment.