Friday, November 30, 2018

A Few Notes On The Poor Peoples Campaign Of 1968 As Food For Thought As We Prepare From The Second And Hopefully Final Campaign in 2018

A Few Notes On The Poor Peoples Campaign Of 1968 As Food For Thought As We Prepare From The Second And Hopefully Final Campaign in 2018

By Seth Garth
Some readers may know that Si Lannon, who usually does film and art exhibitions reviews in this publication (and book reviews at the American Literary Digest some of which find their way into this publication by reciprocal agreement), back on June 23rd of this year had an assignment in Washington, D.C. to write an article on the Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. On his way to do that assignment, on that Saturday June 23rd when he exited the Smithsonian Metro stop on National Mall to walk over to the 7th Street entrance to the Gallery building Si noticed a large white tent and further down toward 7th Street proper a large stage flanked by two huge screens and huge banners proclaiming that this was the site of the Poor People’s Campaign, hereafter PPC. When he stopped off at the tent he found out from one young activist who was busy painting slogans on posters for the day’s event that the day was the culmination of several weeks of local state capital actions throughout the country highlighting issues like homelessness, immigration and the war economy. All as they adversely affect the great unacknowledged poor masses in this country who have mainly been the victims of the growing gap between the rich and poor. The 23rd was basically a wake-up call to the federal government and an organizing focus for the PPC cadre who will be working hard over the long haul to achieve some of the goals of the campaign. That morning and afternoon would be highlighted by a rally with the inevitable speakers and a march toward the Capitol several blocks down the Mall.     
Once Si knew what was happening and knowing that a fair number of readers and certainly a fair number of writers at this publication remember the original ill-fated Poor People’s Campaign from 1968 which was short-circuited by the murders Doctor Martin Luther King who originally organized the event and Robert Kennedy who was running for President that year and had endorsed the ideas of the campaign and had visited the encampment set up in that summer before his death he called up site manager Greg Green to see if he wanted Si to cover that event. Greg although about a half generation younger that the average person who would remember that event jumped on it with both hands. Told Si to not worry about the Cezanne exhibit and do a piece on the event, Which he did a good job on and had been posted on this site in late June.  
That would not be the end of the PPC coverage though once Si had done his report. Greg, curious about the original PPC, looked for writers here that might have some information and insights about what happened, or didn’t happen, in 1968 and maybe why. As it turned out the only person who had paid much attention to the event was I. I had actually visited the encampment in the summer of 1968 before I received that dreaded draft notice from “my friends and neighbors” which is the way they introduced themselves at the draft board in Adamsville. I made it clear to Greg that I had not been an activist, a participant but had been down for a different reason, a non-political reason, which is North Adamsville corner boy speak back then meant seeing some young woman. Be that as it may Greg assigned me the piece. I make no great claims about being some kind of PPC scholar but only offer some observation which may alert the current audience to what is happening.     
[This truly belongs as an aside but I could not resist making the point that in the amateur political organizing business some things never change. I refer to Si’s asking what was happening on June 23rd to a young activist who was painting slogans on poster board. I can remember many a night, many an after midnight night, high on some drug of the month, working with a small group of other young activists painting slogans on poster board for some demonstration or other. That is the same part. What nobody, nobody in their right minds does today is take said posters or leaflets and using old-fashioned wallpaper paste put them up on telephone poles and on wall also after midnight to avoid the coppers, and probably high on the drug of the month then too] Seth Garth  
A Few Notes On The Poor Peoples Campaign Of 1968 As Food For Thought As We Prepare From The Second And Hopefully Final Campaign in 2018
[As many of you know this is the 50th anniversary of the original Poor Peoples Campaign of 1968. Over the past several months to a year various individuals and organizations have organized around many of those original themes of bringing the poor into some kind of equality in this society. Over the next several weeks there will be weekly actions here locally and a mass rally in Washington around specific grievances. Smedley is knee-deep in the local planning so to give some thoughts about the original campaign is what our May GM discussion period is about. Since we have a big agenda I have written some notes so that we can go to the discussion part directly and save some time. These notes will also be in hard copy at the GM. Al Johnson]
As a long ago philosopher pointed out those who do not remember history are condemned to relive it. That point is what drives this discussion about what happened to the first Poor Peoples Campaign in 1968. It does not pretend to be all-inclusive nor more than one person’s take on those times and that event.
At the most general level the original PPC was a dramatic defeat for the struggles of the poor and oppressed of this country. To understand some of the reasons behind that defeat beyond the murder of the prime mover of the campaign Doctor King will help us to push forward. In a sense the PPC was poorly timed since 1968 as many of us older activists know was a hell-bent year with the Tet offensive finally showing Americans we could not “win” in Vietnam, the refusal of the sitting president, LBJ, to run again, the two assassinations of iconic progressive figures in King and Bobby Kennedy who were in their respective ways driving forces behind the campaign, the turmoil in the streets here and internationally with the May Days in France and the chaos and horror of the Democratic Convention in the summer of that year. So the PPC had to fight for breathe against those more dramatic events and got pushed to the side rather easily especially after King’s murder and some inner turmoil and in-fighting among the leadership.

The PPC was ill-timed and ill-starred in another way. Frankly the heroic black civil rights struggle down South which brought about massive increases in voting rights and some other positive benefits did not after 1965 put much of a dent in the oppression of black people and other minorities around housing, jobs, education, healthcare and the like. With the Vietnam War sucking the life out of Lyndon Johnson’s modern day version of “forty acres and a mule” the war on poverty at a governmental level fell apart. Liberals, governmental and private citizens, began the long retreat away from governmental attempts to alleviate poverty which continues to this day witness the demise of the social welfare programs started under the Clinton administration. Moreover a reaction set in around the question of race when the cities started burning up as a result of the denial of legitimate grievances by the black community and its allies in other minority communities.
The elephant in the room though and fifty years of myth creation around the hallowed name of Doctor King cannot cover the fact up that he as a leader of the black community had lost some authority by pre-Vietnam speech 1967, has been upended by more militant blacks from various vocal anti-integrationist black nationalists to the upfront romantic if doomed Black Panthers. Think about the evolution of the previously intergrated SNCC once black power became a widespread slogan, especially among the young non-churched types. King was the number one symbol of black integration when the moods in the black community was heading elsewhere. Those of us in the military in those days got a taste of that in off-hours when there was very little interaction between the races. King through his belated and now famous anti-Vietnam War speech and his support of the sanitation workers in Memphis was making something of a “comeback” and the PPC was to be at least the symbolic way to get his agenda back on the front pages.
This political, social and personal backdrop does not take away from what was attempted, and what was necessary given the other factors particularly the retreat by the liberals from advocacy of many social programs and the hostility of others to even dealing with the poverty problem any longer. A look at the PPC program tells us that much. It also highlights not only the social reality of the times but that like the heroic struggle for formal civils rights the poor and oppressed were going to have to fight for the better housing, healthcare, education and the like since few others were committed to their cause. The need for the poor and oppressed to lead and fight for what they need which never really happened in 1968 and is the wave of the future of the current campaigns really is the only long-term way forward in order to break the cycle of poverty and the pathologies that gut-level struggle for survival engenders. Something which grouping up in the projects I was personally painfully aware of as a kid.
A few nuts and bolts facts about the 1968 PPC will show that many of the same issues still need addressing, some of the same organizing tactics are in play as well from multiracial, multicultural meetings of poor people and their advocates which the ruling class in its constant strategy of “divide and conquer” hates to see to some programmatic demands. In March of 1968 many poverty-centered organizations like the National Welfare Rights Organization and the Southern Regional Council joined with Doctor King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in Atlantic to forge a common program to fight on. To list the three major demands today seems utopian (and way underestimating the money that would be needed today) but still necessary to fight around:
·        $30 billion annual appropriation for a real war on poverty
·        Congressional passage of full employment and guaranteed income legislation [a guaranteed annual wage]
·        Construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year until slums were eliminated
To highlight these demands the campaign would be divided into three phases, the first to create a permitted shanty town of several thousand people which came to be called Resurrection City on the National Mall, the second to begin protest demonstrations and mass non-violent civil disobedience actions and third to take actions to generate mass arrests like those which brought national attention to the plight of blacks in the South around voting rights. The latter two phases are the touchstone of the 2018 campaign as well.
To bring people to Washington several “caravans” were organized from all regions of the country to meet in June of 1968 with a big solidarity rally which brought some 50, 000 people to D.C. to join the estimated 3000 that were “residing” on the Mall.  
Bayard Rustin put forth a proposal for an “Economic Bill of Rights” for Solidarity Day that called for the federal government to most of which still are the wave of the future:
Recommit to the Full Employment Act of 1946 and legislate the immediate creation of at least one million socially useful career jobs in public service, adopt the pending housing and urban development act of 1968, repeal the 90th Congress’s punitive welfare restrictions in the 1967 Social Security Act, extend to all farm workers the right–guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act–to organize agricultural labor unions, and restore budget cuts for bilingual education, Head Start, summer jobs, Economic Opportunity Act, Elementary and Secondary Education Acts
I have addressed some of the problems and social conditions which helped undermine that first campaign and others can add more from their recollections of the times including the question of post-King murder leadership and in-fighting. Hopefully the latter will not be an issue in the new movement.      
There are some differences in the current campaign from that of 1968 that I think are worth noting as we gear up the campaign. First, if we are to be successful this time, real poor people and members of oppressed communities will have to take leadership roles, make their mistakes and learn from them. Just like we did, do. Our role is one of support to see that such leadership emerges which I believe was a real short-coming of the “professional” organizer from Doctor King on down model in 1968. Second we are “demanding” similar programs to those of 1968 but not “begging” the government to implement as some criticized the 1968 campaign for doing. Lastly, and unfortunately, there are several more issues that the 1968 campaign did not have to address as forcefully like an end to mass black and Latino incarceration and the war on drugs which has decimated communities of color and sapped it of a young, mostly male, leadership component.       

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