Forty-five years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stunned the nation when he called for a poor people’s campaign and march on Washington, D.C. The Poor People’s Campaign was part of the second phase of the Civil Rights movement.
On May 11, Dr. Martin Luther King’s campaign for economic justice will be renewed in Baltimore. On that day, a large coalition of Civil Rights activists, labor unions and progressive community organizations will begin a 41-mile walk from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., to demand immediate change for poor and working people.
Dr. King believed that the Civil Rights movement needed to go further and encompass a war against poverty and racism, while at the same time bringing an end to the Vietnam war, which was then raging. And he wanted the march to be militant:
“People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way … and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’” (thenation.com, Feb. 1, 2010) Shortly after announcing the Poor People’s Campaign, King was assassinated in the midst of a strike by Black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn.
May 11 march makes broad demands
The demands of the May 11 march relate to a broad spectrum of injustice and oppression in Baltimore specifically and the United States generally.
Police brutality and mass incarceration. Baltimore has become the capital of police killings. Since January 2012, 16 people have been killed by the Baltimore City Police Department; not a single officer has been indicted.
The epidemic of police terror and abuse is not confined to Baltimore. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement has documented that every 36 hours a Black person is killed by police agencies in this country. Police repression and racism go hand in hand with the mass incarceration of young people, mostly youth of color, who are locked away in prisons across this country.
Deepening poverty. One out of every four people in Baltimore lives below the poverty level. Growing poverty, due to continuing depression-level joblessness in every major city and in many towns, underscores the need to revive Dr. King’s fight to end poverty.
Organizers want to renew Dr. King’s call for “Jobs or income now” and demand that the federal government: 1) bail out the people, not the banks; 2) provide a massive Works Projects Administration-type program to put the people back to work; and 3) through executive order, place a moratorium on home foreclosures.
They also oppose any and all austerity measures, whether they come in the form of cuts to Social Security, Medicare, unemployment or food stamps.
Attacks on workers rights. If Dr. King were alive, he would be on the frontline of stemming the tide of right-wing attacks on workers and unions, which are couched in the misleading language of “right to work.” Dr. King would have been leading sit-ins to win justice for low-wage workers, from Walmart to McDonald’s. His last days were spent fighting for sanitation workers’ rights — a battle yet to be finished.
Racism and injustice. The May 11 marchers want to continue the ongoing struggle to stop racism and end attacks on immigrants, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer communities They believe that people should no longer be divided from others or considered “illegal” simply because he or she has crossed a border, and that the fight for justice is far from over when someone can be profiled and murdered because they are Black, Latino/a, Native or Asian. That fight, they say, continues when women are still denied equal rights and LGBTQ people continue to suffer from violence and bigotry.
Cuts in education, health care and human needs to fund war and occupation. Dr. King proclaimed very accurately that “every bomb that falls on Vietnam is a bomb dropped on our inner cities.” The names of the targeted countries and occupations have changed. What hasn’t is the growing trillions spent on the Pentagon that drain the wealth of this country and that could instead fund health care for every uninsured person, provide education for youth, stop school closings and provide jobs for all.
Not only does war still threaten the people of this world, but the U.S. refusal to deal with the ever-growing evidence of climate change and the insatiable desire to put profits before people threaten the entire planet. The only way to build Dr. King’s beloved community is to end war and put people’s needs before profits.
What was originally conceived as a commemorative march centered locally around Baltimore and Washington, D.C., has become a movement that is national in scope. The march was initiated by the Baltimore Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which organized the original Poor People’s Campaign, and the Baltimore People’s Power Assembly, a more recent organization that has been very active around issues such as police brutality and labor rights.
As word of the campaign has spread, endorsements from labor and progressive organizations around the country have been growing. Plans are underway for busloads of marchers to come from throughout the eastern region of the United States and beyond.
As people commemorate both the 50th anniversary of the historic 1963 Civil Rights march on Washington, and the equally important 45th anniversary of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is being directed to dealing with the persisting problems of racism, social injustice and denial of human rights today.