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International Socialism, Autumn 1968


Lily Gay Lampinen

The Poor People’s Campaign


From International Socialism (1st series), No.34, Autumn 1968, pp.8-10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Notebook

Lily Gay Lampinen writes: The six-week-old Poor People’s Campaign ended with the government’s ‘closing’ of its camp site, Resurrection City, USA, on Monday 24 June 1968. The campaign was potentially revolutionary. Rev Ralph Abernathy, president of the late Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) – which was solely responsible for the campaign – reiterated the campaign’s revolutionary demands in nearly every one of his statements in Washington from its beginning on 13 May through his ‘militant’ 19 June Solidarity Day speech. He demanded that:

‘... no child go hungry ... that no citizen be denied an adequate income ... that no human being be deprived of health care ... that no American be denied the opportunity of education ... and that this murdering of people end in America, in Vietnam, and the world.’

SCLC sold out by giving up these demands. There were minuscule victories, but they were completely obliterated by President Johnson’s 28 June signing of the tax bill which contains a $6-billion budget reduction that will certainly come out of programmes designed to help the poor.

The campaign was also potentially revolutionary because of its strategy: people were to go to the capital and stay until their demands were met. This strategy had only been attempted twice before in the nation’s history: by Coxey’s Army in 1894 and the Bonus Marchers of 1932 (who did camp in the capital until the government brutally evicted them and destroyed their encampment). Abernathy abandoned this strategy. He co-operated with the government in its closing of the ‘City of Hope’ by taking out as many of its remaining residents as he could, ostensibly for the campaign’s first (and last) official act of civil disobedience.

The campaign also had revolutionary potential because it was the first serious attempt since the Populist Party of the 1890s to unite poor blacks and whites in a militant mass political action. The campaign went even further by calling upon all of the poor – not just the blacks and the whites – but also the Chicanos (Spanish-Americans or Mexican-Americans), Indians, and Puerto Ricans to join. SCLC sold out on this by never allowing the other groups any serious voice in running the campaign. Chicano leader Reies Lopez Tijerina’s public accusations to this effect and his refusal ever to move his people into Resurrection City ended with his participation in, if not formation of, a new organisation, a national Poor People’s Coalition, composed of poor whites, Chicanos, Indians, Puerto Ricans, and blacks – but without SCLC, a week after the destruction of Resurrection City.

The militant, massive non-violent demonstrations which King had promised and Abernathy paid lip-service to also gave the campaign a potentially revolutionary stamp. At the very least an historic confrontation between the poor and the government would have occurred if the 2,500 to 3,000 residents of Resurrection City (which it was consistently reported to have had from 18 May through 2 June; even if its population shrank to around 500 by 11 June) had been thrown into the promised demonstrations. The first protest of some 300 did not even materialise until 21 May, the ninth day after Resurrection City was begun on 13 May. From this first demonstration until the death of Robert Kennedy on 6 June, when Abernathy ran off to be on the funeral train after declaring a moratorium on demonstrations (as I was told by the poor in Resurrection City), there were more or less daily protests involving 50 to 500 people – but usually only a few hundred. Only on two days did Abernathy use even one-third of the poor: on 23 May about 900 people were involved in three different protests, and on 30 May Abernathy led an ‘uneventful’ march of 1,000 to the Department of Agriculture and promptly back to the ‘City of Hope.’

Two of the demonstrations – the one at the Supreme Court on 29 May and the one in Attorney General Ramsey Clark’s office on 4 June (the demonstrators were allowed inside to end a camp-in started outside on the previous day) – were militant and dramatic confrontations but they were hardly massive. The former involved about 300 and the latter 100 of the 3,000 poor. During the last week of the campaign (17-24 June) some very militant demonstrations, acts of civil disobedience, and violent clashes between the poor and the police took place, but SCLC was clearly not in charge of these. The militant citizens of Resurrection City were running their own campaign.

Abernathy simply never threw his 3,000 people at the government. The heavy rains and mud that turned Resurrection City into a quagmire after 24 May can justify some of the campaign’s delay, but they do not excuse Abernathy. The Black Revolution could have learned something – even if it did not gain anything – by witnessing thousands of the poor confronting the government for weeks – and thousands would have come from throughout the land to replace any jailed thousands. In this sense the campaign never began.

Abernathy talked militant but actually co-operated with the Johnson Administration. Washington and the government were very apprehensive about the beginning of the Poor People’s Campaign. The 4 April assassination of Martin Luther King had set off a ghetto rebellion in Washington which made federal troops guard the Capitol and other buildings while parts of the city burned. At the end of the month, when Abernathy and his representative group of some 100 poor presented their demands, most of the officials were made to wait hours on the poor and it indeed looked as if the fears of a beleaguered capital were to come true: an army of militant poor people would soon descend and do battle. The government waited on Abernathy; he and the poor seemed uncompromising, and in many parts of the nation people were moving, for this was the one way they could show how they felt about the assassination of King and the way the nation treats its poor. The SCLC leadership, however, made some kind of a deal with the Johnson Administration. It became clear after the campaign started with the construction of Resurrection City on federal land that Abernathy was working closely with the government.

During the first eight demonstration-less days of the campaign Abernathy was busy conferring with Congressional leaders, making sure that Vice-President Humphrey visited the campsite (and when he did, he had SCLC’s ‘militant’ Rev James Bevel recite how the poor were going to make a non-violent revolution), and co-operating with the Johnson Administration as he did throughout the campaign. The New York Times of 13 June stated:

‘Mr Abernathy’s difficulties with militant leaders, and the confusion caused by mis-management of the campaign, has complicated extensive behind-the-scenes efforts by the Johnson Administration to guide the poor people’s demonstration ... the Administration has sought to stage-manage the Poor People’s Campaign for what Government officials believed were shared objectives ...’

The article goes on to say that the Administration was ‘privately gratified’ over the demonstrations against Wilbur Mills, chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee and a principal promoter of budget cuts. But on 30 May, when Johnson said he would accept a $6-billion budget cut to get his tax bill passed, the demonstration against Mills stopped! The channels of communication between the campaign and government officials proved ‘remarkably good.’ ‘We tried to choreograph the ballet of the poor,’ one ‘highly placed official’ said. This effort included field representatives from the Justice Department’s ‘Community Relations Service’ (headed by Roger Wilkins, the son of NAACP’s Roy Wilkins) being in Resurrection City ‘constantly,’ not to mention US marshals, border patrol officers and FBI agents who all served as ‘the eyes and ears of the Government’s guiding staff.’ Just in case the communication and co-operation between SCLC and the government spies within the encampment did not prove adequate, agents watched from unmarked radio cars and even from the top of the Washington Monument so that any spontaneous action on .the part of the poor was sure to be immediately reported.

Abernathy actually sat down with army or other intelligence agents to brief them about which residents of Resurrection City were indeed militant and bound to make .trouble. He never staged the militant, massive, non-violent demonstrations. After dedicating the city, he did not even return to it for a week. The New York Times proclaimed the day after Resurrection City was closed: ‘The Rev Ralph David Abernathy and more than 300 of his 500 remaining followers in the Poor People’s Campaign were arrested today in a finale pre-arranged with the Government officials to avoid violence.’ (One hundred and twenty-four of the militant residents did not follow Abernathy to their ‘pre-arranged’ fate, so they were arrested at the encampment.)

SCLC was tied to the Democratic Party’s faltering Liberal-Labour-Negro Coalition. Representatives of this coalition met in New York in June in an attempt to save the campaign by staging an impressive Solidarity Day demonstration. Some union members were even paid to go to Washington. Mrs Robert Kennedy accompanied Mrs King who led the Mothers’ Day March officially opening the campaign in Washington on 12 May. Immediately after the Kennedy assassination, Mrs King flew to Los Angeles to accompany Ethel Kennedy and the body back to New York. On 8 June Abernathy was also on the Kennedy funeral train. He staged sympathy demonstrations by the poor and he imposed a moratorium on all other demonstrations.

Even if Resurrection City wound up with approximately half of its population being militant, SCLC had tried to keep the black militants out of the campaign. The militants in Washington had promised not to interfere with the campaign which meant they were to keep out of it. In the campaign’s early days Stokely Carmichael was seen around the motel which housed its headquarters, and he toured the encampment the day after it was begun; but no black militant spoke on Solidarity Day, and Stokely’s or H Rap Brown’s names were not mentioned, probably because ‘SCLC knew they would get a 20-minute ovation’ as one of my more astute fellow participants (Negro) observed on the way home. Besides discouraging militant participation or support, SCLC sent home 200 black militants from the encampment. These were members of youth gangs from Chicago and Detroit who were expelled for beating up whites, interfering with SCLC workers, and being hostile to the press, explained Bevel. (New York Times, 23 May)

On my way to Washington I had read in the fine print of the 22 June Michigan Chronicle that the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover had ruled that SNCC, RAM and the Black Muslims had to go, and that over 200 militants all over the country had either been silenced or put in jail, with total bail amounting to $50 million, meaning that militants would have to raise $5 million in cash to get their members out of jail. This news – buried in a ‘gossip column’ – also reported on H. Rap Brown, who had been framed by the government and sentenced to five years in prison, and the police attack upon the political leadership of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California. This has been a constant, brutal State attack, which has resulted in one Panther officer, Bobby Hutton, being murdered by the police, and others, such as Eldridge Cleaver, being jailed and subjected to inhuman treatment.

On the next day, as I sat through the five hours of Solidarity Day speeches, nobody said a word about this repression. Nobody even mentioned the ‘Conspiracy’ conviction of Dr Spock! Abernathy gave a one-hour speech which only 10,000 of the original crowd of 50,000 to 100,000 remained to hear. Unlike the March on Washington in 1963 when ‘we pleaded,’ he said, ‘We are now demanding.’ The Poor People’s Campaign was ‘just beginning:’ the poor would ‘stay’ in Washington until their demands were met. But all of this was just militant rhetoric. The only testimony about the State’s current repression that I heard or saw was a sign carried by a proud, good-looking young Chicago woman which gave her name and stated: ‘I am a victim of Texas Ranger brutality.’ SCLC said it was not 1963, but they acted as if it were. Abernathy ended the day by having the audience join hands, sway, and sing We Shall Overcome. What I saw in Resurrection City on my two hour visit there on the morning of Solidarity Day was in complete contradiction to the benign, non-violent tone of the long rally which was to follow.

On 20 June the militant poor people staged a sit-in at the Department of Agriculture which clearly defied SCLC’s instructions. Immediately before it began Williams visited the demonstrators but gave ‘no indication’ of what was going to happen! Eighty were arrested – three times as many as in the total campaign to that date. There were violent clashes between the militant members of Resurrection City and authorities throughout the rest of the week. SCLC obviously did not and could not control the militant poor anymore. The SCLC officials wanted the camp shut, as was clearly shown in the New York Times articles after 25 June, and they even admitted that the government had gotten them out of a mess by knocking down the camp!

About 100 of Resurrection City’s ‘youthful waverers on non-violence’ (New York Times, 30 June) set off the violence in Washington the day the camp was closed. They had followed Abernathy out of the camp, but, when the police cordoned off and refused to arrest them with Abernathy and the 250 other poor people at the Capitol, they marched into the black ghetto and ignited an ‘afternoon of violence and vandalism.’ By nightfall there were scattered episodes of rock throwing, window smashing and looting, so the city’s black mayor, Walter Washington, slapped on a curfew and, with the now-common massive display of force (and a massive barrage of tear gas), law and order were restored. This was the only incident triggered by the federal ‘sweep through’ of the encampment.

The failure of the campaign is the kiss of death for SCLC. Non-violence as a principle in the Black Revolution, however, died long ago. The black masses put an end to it with the Watts Insurrection.

However, thousands of people have been involved in the Poor People’s Campaign. Even if they have been disappointed, they have had an invaluable political experience. Most important of all, the 3,000 residents of Resurrection City and the many hundreds (if not more) who passed through, have been able to interchange ideas with one another and get to know each other, which has a validity all its own. This may eventually help the movement on the part of America’s oppressed people make a leap.

The Poor People’s Campaign was faced with an insoluble dilemma. Revolutionary demands were made. Whether SCLC realised it or not, it had to make these demands for no one can move the black masses today on reformist demands. Once revolutionary demands are raised, however, no organisation can control the people who respond. Caught on the horns of this dilemma, SCLC lost control of the campaign.

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