By Sylvie Laurent, author of King and the Other America: The Poor People’s Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality (coming December 2018)
As America celebrates the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, I am impressed by the scope of scholars and activists who reclaim King, attempting to save him from an institutional canonization that has bowdlerized his message. They recognize his role as a champion of formal equality, civil rights and nothing more. The favored narrative dismisses yet another, that of a resilient democracy redeemed by virtue of King’s civic contribution. This moment of memorialization obscures King’s fundamental dissatisfaction with the political economy of the country.
What if the King we should be the more impressed with was not the one who fits the narrative of a triumphant leader of racial progress which culminated with the Civil Rights legislation, but the unsuccessful King? The one who failed to bridge the race and class divide and bring the issue of wealth inequality and welfare rights into the national conversation.
The relevance of the Poor People’s Campaign (PPC) is striking and we should remove the misleading framework of success vs. failure. Its accuracy and foretelling deserve a serious examination, which I explore in King and the Other America. When Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, he pointed out that a chief characteristic of the poor, whatever their race, was their invisibility. King picked up the baton but brought such concern to an all new level. The perception and visibility of poverty he envisioned through the PPC was only one aspect of his last campaign. It sought to influence public policies, bringing social democratic elements to it while reframing the articulation of race and class.
Here is what King had pictured. The masses of the “truly disadvantaged,” precisely because of their multiracial makeup, would gather in Washington to exert pressure on the White House and Congress, forcing the reform of an unjust system and the relocation of power toward those disenfranchised either by race or class. The campaign would, as King had envisioned, challenge a flawed liberal democracy which had thrived on a racially divided working and non-working class. By denouncing “the tenacious poverty which so paradoxically exists in the midst of plenty,” the PPC was prophetic: the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, between a handful of extremely wealthy and a growing impoverished population, put the very idea of democracy at risk.
King did not live to see his ultimate crusade materialized. The Poor People’s Campaign and the initiatives associated with it turned out to be a living memorial of the leader who passed away weeks before. For more than a month though, thousands of poor people of all races poured into the capital, by foot, train or on mule wagons, camping out on the Mall in a shantytown they named Resurrection City. They occupied the space and for six weeks and attempted to get the powers that be to take notice and have the nation come to terms with a second phase of the movement for substantive civil rights.
Their bold endeavor needs to be reappraised, and reflected upon especially in the era of Trump.
Sylvie Laurent is a French cultural historian who studies race and class in the United States and teaches American Studies at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. She was previously a W. E. B. Du Bois fellow at Harvard University.