A Reflection: The Poor People’s Campaign and Dr. King’s Economic Vision

Charles Johnson

By Charles Johnson, GBPI Board Member and General Counsel, VP of External Affairs for Tuskegee University

Much attention is currently focused on the events which occurred 50 years ago, the last year in the life of Dr. of Martin Luther King, Jr. As one who spent a good deal of that year working with Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference I have observed that many of this year’s commemorations focus too little attention on the causes to which he devoted his final year. There is a tendency to forget that, at the end of his life, Dr. King’s central message concerned the need for economic justice.

The rapid economic expansion which the United States experienced in the 1960s was not shared by all Americans. Throughout that decade, despite the gains brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, the rate of poverty among African-Americans remained at three times the rate experienced by white Americans.

By 1967, Dr. King had concluded that the Movement’s focus should expand from an emphasis on civil rights to a broader emphasis on human rights: that African Americans and other disinherited citizens would never achieve full citizenship until they attained economic security and, accordingly, that something must be done to focus the nation’s attention on the problems of poverty and economic inequality. Toward the end of 1967, Dr. King announced his intention to lead a Poor People’s Campaign the following year. His plan was for thousands of poor people of all races and backgrounds to descend on the nation’s capital, to demand that government officials address the needs of the nation’s poor.

The central demands of the Poor People’s Campaign were summarized in an “Economic Bill of Rights,” notably including the right to a meaningful job with a livable wage. In this most prosperous nation on earth, participants in the Poor People’s Campaign called on the nation to embrace a guaranteed annual income.

Dr. King spent the early months of 1968 traveling around the country, generating support for the Poor People’s Campaign. To illustrate the plight of the working poor, he embraced the struggle of the sanitation workers in the City of Memphis who were currently striking to demand better pay and working conditions. I was part of the support team for Dr. King’s tour of New Jersey in support of the Poor Peoples Campaign on March 27, 1968, the day before Dr. King traveled to Memphis for the disastrous march which caused him to be back in Memphis on April 4th.

In the weeks following Dr. King’s death, a Committee of 100 began meeting with members of Congress and leaders of executive agencies to lobby for the Campaign’s demands.  I joined with thousands of everyday people who assembled in an encampment on the National Mall referred to as Resurrection City, and who by May had begun a series of demonstrations in support of the Economic Bill of Rights.

By the end of June, the inhabitants of Resurrection City had been evicted. Many of them continued to lobby for changes in federal policy, with modest results. Others went on to demonstrate at the Democratic and Republican conventions later that summer. But the idea of making the nation’s economy more inclusive, prominently featured in the Economic Bill of Rights, did not die with the evacuation of Resurrection City.

In Georgia, the need today is as great as it was in 1968. Georgia’s economy provides high profits and decent economic gains, but only for some of its citizens. While the richest ten percent of Georgians currently earn about half of the state’s total income each year, the other half of the state’s total annual income must be shared among the bottom ninety percent. Nearly one in four Georgians lives in poverty. A Georgia child born to parents at the bottom of the economic scale has no more than an eight percent chance of moving into the upper class over his or her lifetime, and only a 41 percent chance of just making it into the middle class. Even for middle class Georgians, the average household income in 2016 was about seven percent less than it was in 2000. This lack of mobility for Georgia’s poor, and this wage stagnation among Georgia’s middle class, area barriers to economic growth. Every Georgian blocked from success is one less potential worker, entrepreneur, teacher or inventor whose talents are left on the sidelines.

When I joined the board of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute two years ago, I saw it as an opportunity to support an organization working to achieve a more inclusive economy in Dr. King’s home state. Its vision is that Georgia can be a state where everyone has a chance at a decent job so they can raise a family, can go to a doctor when they get sick and attend great public schools. Much work remains to be done to turn these aspirations into reality.

The need for solutions to make our economy more inclusive is just as critical in our time as it was in 1968. Georgia can provide much-needed support for working families by pursuing policies that expand economic opportunity and well-being for all Georgians, while honoring the legacy of one its most prominent native sons.

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