The Poor People’s Campaign, 40 Years before Occupy Wall Street
“Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. . . . God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty.” —from an imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians in a 1956 sermon  by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In a time of resurgent, emboldened racism and a deliberate, legislated taking away of voting rights in states all across the land; in this time of meanness and hostility toward the poor and the “differently colored” from political candidates (mostly white and privileged); in these days of cowardice by public officials and those in a position to defend the weak, the poor, and the marginalized; and, more hopefully, in these days of a people’s movement toward economic fairness through Occupy Wall Street and other activism, we take some comfort and courage from the words and the actions of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Especially relevant today is his work on the Poor People’s Campaign .
We focus today on Rev. King’s remarks in the speech “Where Do We Go from Here?”, his last address as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to its members, in Atlanta, on August 16, 1967. The ideas of social and economic justice expressed in this address underlay his and the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign , on which Rev. King was working when he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. At the time of his death he was lending support to the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike . Selections from “Where Do We Go from Here?” follow. (See also King’s book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? )
Where Do We Go from Here?
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on. . . .
We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. . . . Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. . . .
. . . our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available. In 1879 Henry George anticipated this state of affairs when he wrote in Progress and Poverty:
The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves driven to their tasks either bay the task, by the taskmaster, or by animal necessity. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.
Work of this sort could be enormously increased, and we are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. . . .
. . . Now our country can do this. John Kenneth Galbraith said that a guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year. And I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth. . . .
. . . as we talk about “Where do we go from here,” . . . the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. . . . We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. . . .
When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrow. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Click here  for a slide show of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and the immediate aftermath of King’s assassination.
King’s Last March  by American Radio Works. See also ARW’s special features Beyond Vietnam ; New Front in the Fight for Freedom ; The FBI’s War on King ; and From the Pulpit to the Heart 
Read “Dr. Martin Luther King’s Economics: Through Jobs, Freedom ” by Mark Engler in The Nation
And see the fine American Experience (PBS) documentary “Freedom Riders ,” available through Netflix.
The excepts above (except the epigraph) were transcribed from Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World (1986, 1992), with a foreword by Coretta Scott King, pp. 172–79. ¶ Top photograph by Dan Weiner: Martin Luther King, Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, 1956. Middle photo by Horace Cort for Associated Press.
Below: Memphis, 1968: National Guardsmen block the entrance to Beale Street in Memphis. Two days after the March 28 demonstration  that King had led in support of striking sanitation workers turned violent, people continued to protest in Memphis (Mississippi Valley Collection).