Revisiting the Poor People’s Campaign and Its Legacy

Civil Rights March, 1963 — Rowland Scherman (National Archives)

Universal health care, a public-job guarantee, and massive wealth redistribution are not just buzzwords in cable news interviews as myriad politicians vie for the Democratic presidential nomination. As cultural historian Sylvie Laurent’s new book shows, these ideas were the ideological foundations of the nation’s most daring, dramatic, and largely overlooked moral crusade. In King and the Other America: The Poor People’s Campaign and the Quest for Economic Equality, Laurent reckons with the intellectual traditions that led Martin Luther King, Jr. to organize a multiracial coalition of poor folks who demanded sweeping changes to America’s political economy. The Poor People’s Campaign brought thousands of impoverished Americans to Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1968 to press for a host of federal guarantees on education, health care, and housing. “We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights,” King told the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967.

Laurent, a French scholar of race and class in the US, does not aim to describe the campaign’s organization, which other scholars have addressed.1 Instead, she follows the trajectory of King’s political thought on race, class, imperialism, and patriotism to expose the intellectual “creed” that spurred the Poor People’s Campaign. She argues the campaign was the culmination of King’s quest to understand the causes and consequences of his country’s long history of injustice. In tracing the course of King’s philosophy, Laurent is particularly concerned — though not exclusively — with the extent to which King adopted and shunned both white and Black Marxist traditions. She situates King in the tradition of Black thought leaders, men she dubs “the patriarchs,” who had drawn from their own biographies to forge critiques of entwined racial and economic oppression. “Dismantling structural racism was requisite for any serious transformational class politics,” she writes of King’s emergent thinking. By underscoring Black involvement in communist politics and radical Christian interpretations, Laurent brings King’s political thought fully into view as a unique amalgam of Black radicalism, Marxism, and European theology. To bolster her claims, she offers close readings of King’s letters and speeches to show he was not a communist sympathizer, but that he “used what was relevant in the Marxian diagnosis to call on the American economic system to restructure and redeem.”

Any fair examination of King’s political development — and by extension the campaign’s origins — must come to terms with questions of ideological influence. Laurent carries out this task with precision. In many ways, her text necessarily draws on what may be called Radical King scholarship, an effort to rescue the human rights crusader from his postmortem mainstream reputation as a respectable reformer, but she disavows simple explanations of King’s radicalization. His intellectual odyssey led him to criticize the limits of US liberal democracy, which has a rich legacy in Black thought, but it also drove him to set forth a vision for the campaign that sought to extend the liberal tradition, especially the state’s role to ensure equality. The campaign, the author notes, “entailed drastic structural reform of liberal democracy but not its utter repudiation.”

On this point, Laurent is particularly creative when she employs sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of an ever-shifting “probable class” to describe a category defined not by its relation to the means of production, but by its position in “the mode of social relations, dependent on historical context, in which some are exploited and self-conscious.” This discursive analysis illuminates why King seldom spoke of “class” or “the proletariat,” as W.E.B. Du Bois and others had, and instead opted for terms like “the poor” and at times “exploitation.” However, even when he diverged from Marxist ideologues, King did not shy away from causal explanations of poverty that were precisely Marxist in tone: the rich are rich because they exploit the poor. Laurent argues this long tradition of social thought among Black radicals all but ensured that, by the late 1960s, any poor people’s movement had to find support beyond “progressive-minded liberals and reformists of good will.”

In a chapter aptly titled “An ‘American Commune,’” Laurent turns her focus from rhetoric to practice and includes an impressive analysis of how King handled various agendas from groups he hoped to convince. Native Americans and Chicanos, for example, wanted some aspect of cultural recognition tied to the campaign’s universal demands. This wise choice from the author allows already-deeply researched War on Poverty and Black Power historiographies to serve as the foreground onto which she maps King’s philosophy that she earlier dissected. In particular, her inclusion of Black working-class and poor women’s involvement in the campaign, via the National Welfare Rights Organization, goes a long way in welcoming a diverse set of intellectual traditions. In the book’s first half, for instance, major figures in Black thought at the dawn of the twentieth century are almost exclusively men. Laurent would not have risked losing her focus on King if she had taken a few notes from new approaches in intellectual history, specifically regrading gender. New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition is a stand-out resource in this regard.

To her credit, Laurent joins an increasing number of historians who, in a break with predecessors, refuse to dismiss the campaign as the stepchild of other, more celebrated twentieth-century social movements. She convincingly establishes the Poor People’s Campaign as a singularly radical flashpoint in the violent turmoil of the 1960s, a period not wanting for attention by journalists, historians, and writers of all sorts. With its scrutiny of the Black thought that birthed King, Laurent’s text is a notable contribution to this welcome trend. She has written a compelling narrative that emerges from and stands alongside Michael K. Honey and Thomas F. Jackson’s pathbreaking scholarship on anti-poverty activism of the era.2

This engaging book, however, is also a daunting read. Our political scene is never far removed from Laurent’s narrative. She posits, for example, that the campaign’s “insightful castigation of unfair distribution of resources helps us to understand how missed opportunities shape our present.” A book for this moment, King and the Other America raises fresh questions about the validity of any historical sweep that fails to seriously consider the case of the Poor People’s Campaign and its legacy. From voter suppression to housing discrimination and more, the last half-century has seen assaults on numerous postwar civil rights gains. In this milieu, contemporary debates about class and identity electrify our public discourse and harbor remarkably similar contours to those in King’s time. Fifty years on, the Poor People’s Campaign, in deed and word, remains an enduring answer reared in the tangled depths of emancipatory thought.

  1. The campaign and allied groups organized nearly a dozen regional caravans from across the country to arrive in Washington, D.C. with more than 3,000 people. For a comprehensive view of the challenges and opportunities this grassroots movement encountered, see Amy Nathan Wright, “Civil Rights’ ‘Unfinished Business’: Poverty, Race, and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign” (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2007).
  2. See Thomas F. Jackson, From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) and Michael K. Honey, To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018). Also, Gordon K. Mantler, Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974 (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).
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Bobby Cervantes

Bobby Cervantes is a PhD student in the Department of American Studies at the University of Kansas, where he studies poverty, modernity, and social thought. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyCervantes.