These are my remarks from our “State of the Streets” event held in Westport WA on July 14th 2016 when Chaplains on the Harbor announced our official endorsement of the New Poor People’s Campaign.
Almost fifty years ago, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started organizing a campaign he called the Poor People’s Campaign. It was the last campaign of his life, and the one he died working on, but we don’t hear too much about it when people talk about Martin Luther King today.
The Poor People’s Campaign was for people of all races who were facing poverty issues like hunger, failing schools, unemployment, bad housing conditions, and mistreatment by the police. King spent years doing important work for the civil rights of Black people but even as he saw changes being made there, he saw that poor Black people, who made up the majority of the Black community, were being left behind. He put it like this: “What good is the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford the price of a hamburger?”
So he started studying and speaking out more on this question of poverty. He realized that it was such a large problem, impacting so many people across the country, that he would have to bring a large group of people together to fight it. This is why King called for a Poor People’s Campaign. He traveled to cities like Detroit and New York but also to small towns in rural states like Mississippi and West Virginia, and he got in touch with poor Blacks, poor whites, poor Latinos, poor Natives, and poor Asians who were all facing the same fundamental problems and trying to make change.
King asked for these leaders to come together– to travel from around the country and meet up in Washington DC. He was assassinated in Memphis TN just one month before they had all agreed to gather. The rest of the people involved decided they had to move forward with the campaign, that it’s what King would have wanted, so they converged on Washington DC in May of 1968. When they got there, they set up a tent city on the National Mall. They stayed for over a month, three thousand of them, banging on the doors of all the politicians’ offices, telling their stories and demanding change: they demanded the government set aside $30 billion to fight poverty, full employment, guaranteed income, and the construction of 500,00 units of low-income housing every year. They also set up their own internal structure– they had an education tent, a childcare tent, a health care tent, a food tent, a psychiatrist and their own city hall. Together, in that camp, they were able to make a better life for themselves than most of them had back home. They called their tent city “Resurrection City” and said it was “the city where you don’t pay taxes, where there’s no police brutality and you don’t go to jail.”
Resurrection City lasted six weeks until the police came and tore it down. Without Martin Luther King around, many of the other leaders struggled to come up with clear plans and work together. But we’re coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign soon, and there are more groups than ever around the country facing these same issues. There are about 1 million more poor people now than there were in 1968. So we, here at Chaplains on the Harbor, are getting together with people we know to help plan a New Poor People’s Campaign for today. We don’t know what it will look like yet– we don’t know if it will be a tent city in Washington DC or something different. But we are ready to try, we are inviting you all to be part of it with us, and tonight we are taking the first and most important step in that direction, which is speaking out and telling our own stories about this stuff.
It’s hard to think about yourself as a leader when you are poor, when you are struggling. It’s hard to imagine yourself as the next Martin Luther King. But the thing to remember is: Martin Luther King didn’t do any of this alone. In fact, he wasn’t even around when they finally got this thing off the ground. It was poor people who made it happen. Some of them could not read, some of them were disabled, some of them were sick, and many of them had been to jail. It’s them that made this thing happen, and here in 2016, we believe it’ll be those same people who make things happen. There was a group from Washington State that went to the Poor People’s Campaign, and there was even a guy from Grays Harbor County who went. He’s still alive, his name is Hank Adams, he’s a Native guy. He grew up on the Quinault reservation and went to high school in Moclips. I sent him some fan mail last year but haven’t heard back from him, so if any of you know him, put in a good word for me! But he was there. When he was only about 25 years old, he was one of the key leaders of the original Poor People’s Campaign. So if you’re struggling to make it in Grays Harbor County, this is already in your DNA. This is already part of your story. The original Poor People’s Campaign was for and by people like you and the New Poor People’s Campaign is your campaign.
I’m done talking. Let’s get some of you up and talking now, right after Bishop Rickel explains the ground rules for us.