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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

The Poor People's Campaign

Dr. King's campaigns since the Voting Rights March had been frustrating as he searched for a new theme that would reenergize his supporters and convince them to follow his nonviolent path. Further, his objections to the Vietnam War diverted attention from his civil rights efforts. Increasingly, Black Power advocates saw him as irrelevant to their more strident demands to pull down the white power structure with revolution.

Even as the Civil Rights Movement was transforming into a Black Power Movement, Dr. King began planning his most ambitious campaign in fall 1966.

He had taken his movement into the North in 1966 by launching the Chicago Freedom Movement to secure compliance with the open housing provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His initial tactic of stirring speeches and marches seemed to have no effect on the one official who counted, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

That summer, in 100-degree temperature, a riot broke out when city workers turned off fire hydrants that residents had turned on, as they had for years, to give their children something cool to enjoy. The riot continued for several days before Mayor Daley turned the hydrants back on, even attaching sprinklers to them, and brought in portable pools. With the problem solved, Mayor Daley saw no need to address housing issues.

Dr. King announced that he would take his marchers out of downtown and into white neighborhoods, initially into Gage Park on the city's Southwest Side. Many of the white residents had moved to the area after African-Americans moved into their former neighborhoods. They came out for the march to heckle the protesters, creating news when Dr. King was hit in the head with a rock. Another march, through the bungalow neighborhood of Cragin in Northwest turned ugly as angry whites tried to get at the marchers and the police used clubs to hold them back.

Dr. King announced plans for more marches in white neighborhoods, at least one a day, maybe more. In a biography of Mayor Daley, Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko wrote:

The white neighborhoods were furious, and much of their anger was directed at Daley. He had given rioting blacks swimming pools, now the police were beating home-owning whites.

At last, Dr. King's nonviolent tactics had brought about the creative tension that usually led to breakthroughs. While seeking an injunction to limit the marches, Mayor Daley called for a "summit conference" with civil rights leaders. At the conference in a Protestant church, Mayor Daley began making concessions. He agreed to establish a subcommittee of participants to work out the details of an agreement. He and Dr. King signed the agreement 8 days later in August 1966. "It is the first step in a thousand-mile journey," Dr. King proclaimed, while Mayor Daley said he was satisfied the people of Chicago would accept the agreement. But as Royko pointed out:

It was an impressive document, chock full of noble vows and promises. It was also without legal standing and wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. Only three months after it was signed, when the crisis was over, Alderman [Thomas] Keane said at a City Council meeting that, "There is no Summit Agreement," and the people who took part in the meeting had merely agreed that open housing was "a goal to be reached," but there was no agreement beyond that.

He could say it then. The snow had fallen, Dr. King was back home in the South, the marches had faded into memory. [Royko, Mike, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, E. P. Dutton and Company, 1971, p. 149-154]

Now, in the fall, Dr. King was inspired to launch a new campaign based on the Bonus Army of 1932. Veterans of World War I had been promised a bonus payment in 1945 in thanks for their service, but at the height of the Depression, unemployed veterans traveled from all over the country to demand immediate payment of the bonus in 1932. After their shantytown encampment in Washington embarrassed President Herbert Hoover, troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur forced the Bonus Marchers out of their camp on July 28, 1932. (Congress approved payment of the bonus in 1936 over President Roosevelt's veto.)

With his SCLC leaders, Dr. King began to prepare a campaign for a similar nonviolent occupation of Washington. He explained it this way:

We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street, and say, "We are here; we are poor; we don't have any money; you have made us this way; you keep us down this way; and we've come to stay until you do something about it." [Nixonland, p. 250]

The goal of the Poor People's Campaign would be to promote an Economic Bill of Rights that included full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and low-income housing. Dr. King estimated the cost at $30 billion.

Validation of the goal would come from the Kerner Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. In July 1967, President Johnson had appointed the 11-member commission, headed by Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., of Illinois, to investigate the riots that had rippled through the cities since Watts. The President asked the commission to answer three questions: "What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?" The report, issued on February 29, 1968, blamed the riots on the lack of economic opportunity and failed housing, education and social-service policies. "Our nation," the report said, "is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."

To address the imbalance, the Kerner Commission recommended $30 billion in new urban spending - the same amount Dr. King had set as the goal of the Poor People's Campaign. Dr. King described the Kerner report as showing how "the lives, the incomes, the well-being, of poor people everywhere in America are plundered by our economic system."

After announcing the campaign in November 1967, Dr. King traveled around the country to arrange for people to travel to Washington to demand the Economic Bill of Rights. At the same time, he had to convince his associates, some of whom objected that the demand was too vague to be attained or inconsistent with the new concept of Black Power.

By early 1968, the outline of the campaign was clear:

The plan, as it shaped up through early '68, was for the initial assault on D.C. to come on Eastertide: one hundred leaders lobbying for a government jobs or guaranteed income program. That failing, three thousand destitute Americans would "tent in" on the Mall. If that didn't get results, King imagined a "massive outpouring of hundreds of thousands of persons" the weekend of June 15. Civil disobedience had never been attempted on such a scale. To transform what he now called "a sick, neurotic nation" would require disruption as dramatic, as dislocative, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying life or property." "The city will not function," he'd told reporters after his testimony to the Kerner Commission. He spoke of similar demonstrations nationwide: "We got to go for broke this time." [Nixonland, p. 250]

While Dr. King, Reverend Abernathy, and their colleagues were planning the Poor People's Campaign, Congress was considering the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act). The House of Representatives had approved a version of the bill in 1967, but in an election year, Members of Congress were not eager to approve legislation that would affect white home owners around the country. The bill had been pending in the Senate since the first day of the session, January 15.

On March 11, the Senate passed its version of the bill, 71 to 20, only after an amendment had been approved on March 5, 82-13, aimed at outside agitators. Under the amendment, traveling across State lines or using radio, television, or other interstate facilities with intent to incite a riot would be a Federal crime with a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison and a $10,500 fine.

Sponsors of the legislation hoped to convince the House to approve the Senate version rather than subject the legislation to the compromises of a conference committee. On March 19, the House Rules Committee voted to delay action until at least April 9, after the congressional recess for Easter. Supporters feared that the 3-week delay would give real estate interests and other opponents time to campaign against the bill. The delay also meant that the Senate bill would be considered just as Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign was getting underway.

Updated: 10/17/2013
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