On December 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. formally announced SCLC’S much-anticipated program of mass civil disobedience for the upcoming election year. The Poor People’s Campaign aimed to dramatize poverty in the United States, by leading “waves of the nation’s poor and disinherited to Washington, D.C.… to secure at least jobs or income for all,” King stated. During the following spring, he continued, “we will be petitioning our government for specific reforms and we intend to build militant nonviolent actions until that government moves against poverty.”1 At the heart of the plan was King’s notion of “militant nonviolence,” illustrated through a series of planned marches, rallies, demonstrations, and sit-ins designed to tie up federal agencies and Congress—all emanating from a central, semipermanent campout of poor people on the Washington Mall.2 If such “massive dislocation” failed to move decision makers in Washington, then demonstrators would take their protests home to cities and smaller communities across the country, as well as to the two major party political conventions in Miami Beach and Chicago in the summer of 1968. One way or another, King promised, the poor would be acknowledged in the richest nation in the world.
King’s vision of an “army of the poor” was ambitious, to say the least. Other activists such as Reies López Tijerina had envisioned and pursued parallel efforts to reach across the seemingly impenetrable ethnic, racial, and cultural lines that so often divided the country’s poorest. But King’s proposal surpassed these actions in both scope and potential, by envisioning the transformation of an already-evolving black freedom struggle into a genuine national movement of, by, and for poor people.
Whether SCLC was equipped to handle such a daunting task remained an open question. Undoubtedly, SCLC boasted two advantages: an unparalleled access to financial resources, particularly through organizations such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, and the continued rhetorical star power of King and aides such as the Reverend Jesse Jackson.