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Highway History

The Road to Civil Rights

Completing the Poor People's Campaign

The future of the Poor People's Campaign was uncertain until Reverend Abernathy, now president of the SCLC, announced on April 21 that it had been expanded into "the most massive and militant nonviolent movement in history." Rallies and marches were planned around the country before caravans headed toward Washington, as described in The New York Times :

In the Deep South, Mr. Abernathy said that a wagon train with mule-drawn carts would proceed from state to state, picking up the poor and taking them to Washington. He said that the wagon train would pass through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. [Caldwell, Earl, "Abernathy Plans a 'Massive' March," The New York Times, April 22, 1968]

Reverend Abernathy and a delegation of about 150 arrived in Washington to begin the campaign by presenting the Economic Bill of Rights to Cabinet-level officials and other government officials on April 29. He promised to return in 10 days for answers, but added, "it won't be just 150 of us like today but there will be 3,000." [Caldwell, Earl, "Campaign of Poor Begins in Capital," The New York Times, April 30, 1968] Abernathy testified the following day before the Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty, calling for legislation creating 2 million jobs.

Officials were concerned about what might happen during a gathering of protesters in Washington so soon after the riots following the assassination of Dr. King. At a news conference on May 3, the President expressed concern about the "many inherent dangers" in the plan and the hope that the demonstration would be brief to avoid "possibilities of serious consequences." On May 7, Members of Congress urged President Johnson to reach an agreement to limit the protest for fear of "militant advocates of violence who will swarm among the marchers' routes" to incite rioting and looting, as Senator John L. McClellan (D-Ar.) put it. [Franklin, Ben A., "Congressmen Bid Poor Restrict Drive," The New York Times, May 4, 1968]

The campaign opened on May 12, when Dr. King's widow, Mrs. Coretta King, addressed 5,000 people in the Cardozo High School Stadium. She called for all the women of the Nation to join in a "campaign of conscience." [Franklin, Ben A., "5,000 Open Poor People's Campaign in Washington," The New York Times, March 13, 1968]

The following day, Reverend Abernathy launched construction of "Resurrection City, U.S.A." on the grounds of the Lincoln Memorial to house about 3,000 people. To arouse the conscience of the Nation, he dedicated the plywood city "to plague the Pharoahs of this nation with plague after plague until they agree to give us meaningful jobs and a guaranteed annual income." [Franklin, Ben A., "'City' of the Poor Begun in Capital," The New York Times, May 14, 1968]

The campaign was experiencing financial problems, lacking funds to complete the temporary housing. On May 17, coordinator Bernard Lafayette, who had promoted voters' rights in Selma, urged those not already on the way to Washington to postpone the trip until at least May 30. Of the 600 planned units, only 206 units had been built in West Potomac Park. In a news conference, Lafayette acknowledged that the campaign was in a financial crisis, with sufficient funds only "for the next few days." [Franklin, Ben A., "'Financial Crisis' Forces a Delay in March of Poor," The New York Times, May 18, 1968]

Political news, war protests, and efforts to start peace talks dominated the news. Leaders of the Poor People's Campaign had difficulty securing the coverage it had been designed to generate as a way of providing creative tension and an eventual negotiated solution. Ten days into the campaign, organizers arranged for the first group arrests at the Capitol. Reverend Abernathy explained that, "we are not quite ready yet" for mass arrests, so he negotiated with police to arrest only 18 of the 75 protesters who were violating the Capitol's strict anti-demonstration regulations. [Franklin, Ben A., "18 Arrested in Protest by Poor Near Capitol," The New York Times, May 24, 1968]

On May 29, a small group of protesters at the Supreme Court building broke four windows, with some entering the building only to be pushed back out the windows by guards. [Caldwell, Earl, "High Court Building Stormed in Demonstration by the Poor," The New York Times, May 30, 1968]

Hundreds of protesters, singing and shouting, staged a 7-hour camp-in on June 3 outside Attorney General Ramsey Clark's office in the Justice Department. The effort to block his exit failed when he left by the vehicle entrance at the center of the building. Most of the demonstrators left the building around 9:30 p.m. when Hosea Williams told them, "We can't get arrested, we might as well go home." By midnight, all were gone. [Caldwell, Earl, "Clark is Besieged by Poor in Capital," The New York Times, June 4, 1968]

The following day, Senator Kennedy won the California Democratic primary, but was shot and killed. His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was wrestled to the ground by the former Attorney General's supporters. Again, the Poor People's Campaign fell further from public awareness and media interest.

Campaign organizers had been planning a Solidarity Day mass march for June 19, but on June 6, the march director, Bayard Rustin, suspended activities until campaign organizers clarified the goals to avoid outbreaks of violence. The New York Times reported growing impatience among campaign organizers as difficulties mounted:

One highly placed Administration official said it was his belief that the Rev. Ralph Abernathy . . . leader of the campaign, "has lost control of the thing and is bobbing along like a cork in the current."

"The campaign desperately needs drama," he said, "but there is no producer and no director." [Franklin, Ben A., "Rustin Suspends His Role in March," The New York Times, June 7, 1968]

Rustin quit the march the following day. Reverend Abernathy appointed Sterling Tucker, director of the Washington Urban League, to replace Rustin.

On June 19, 50,000 people (according to police estimates) participated in the Solidarity Day march - a short march, less than a mile long, from the Washington Monument grounds to the Lincoln Memorial grounds. The crowds had emerged from private vehicles and 700 chartered buses. Organizers were pleased by the turnout and hoped it would reenergize the campaign, but The New York Times reported that, "Most of the speakers this afternoon appeared to sense a national mood of irresolution." [Franklin, Ben A., "Over 50,000 March in Capital in Support of the Poor," The New York Times, June 20, 1968]

On June 23, Reverend Abernathy had a new problem. The campaign's permit to camp on park land would expire at 8 p.m. that evening. He announced that he intended to stay beyond the permit limits, but the following day, National Guard troops closed Resurrection City. Reverend Abernathy and several hundred others were arrested, and he was sentenced to 20 days in jail even as the plywood hut city disappeared along with the remaining participants. Compared with the violent end of the Bonus March, the Poor People's Campaign came to a relatively peaceful conclusion. In an article describing Reverend Abernathy's sentence and the end of Resurrection City, The New York Times added:

The long-awaited mule train of the Poor People's campaign, which left Marks, Miss., on May 13, finally entered the capital today after a week of grazing on Government park land in nearby Virginia.

But the 11-wagon caravan, a colorful symbol of rural poverty, attracted little attention. [Franklin, Ben A., "Abernathy Gets 20-Day Jail Term; Capital Calmer," The New York Times, June 26, 1968]

Whether the Poor People's Campaign would have been successful if Dr. King had lived cannot be known. What can be known is that it ended with few if any accomplishments at a time when the rift between advocates for nonviolence and adherents of the new Black Power philosophy was threatening the future of the Civil Rights Movement nurtured by Dr. King.

Congress did not enact the Economic Bill of Rights.

Updated: 10/17/2013
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000