NLG Kicks Off the 2013 Poor People's Campaign

Poor People's Campaign 2013 Baltimore. Photo by Brenda Ryan
Traci Yoder

On May 9, the Maryland chapter of the National Lawyers Guild hosted a celebration of multiple historic civil rights milestones, including what would have been the 100th birthday of Rosa Parks and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The NLG gathering was also a send-off for a march commemorating the 45th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign, a 1968 effort to push for economic and social justice for poor people in the United States. The evening was an inspirational gathering of social justice lawyers, activists, artists, and people who took part in the campaign.

Poor People s Campaign 1968. The National Welfare Rights Organization marching to end hunger. Photo from the Jack Rottier Collection

The 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

The original Poor People’s Campaign was organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council with the aim of pointing the civil rights movement’s tried tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience at the issue of socioeconomic inequality. Conceived as the second phase of the civil rights movements, the campaign was designed to highlight the economic disparities that hindered racial equality. As King argued shortly before he was assassinated, "If a man doesn't have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists."

In February 1968, King announced the specific demands of the campaign: $30 billion in government funding for antipoverty efforts, guaranteed full employment and income, and the annual construction of 500,000 affordable residences. By late May, thousands of people had marched to Washington D.C. to demand that the federal government implement an Economic Bill of Rights. The protestors set up a tent city named “Resurrection City,” which remained for six weeks until the camp was forcibly evicted by police using tear gas.

The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign

To honor this historic civil rights event, a coalition of Maryland social justice organizations coordinated a Poor People’s March from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. in May 2013. The march brought attention to the same economic inequalities highlighted 50 years before, as well as contemporary issues such as police brutality, mass incarceration, inadequate healthcare and education, and the high social and economic costs of war.

The NLG organized a send-off for the march at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore—a museum dedicated to Maryland's African American history and culture. Music, food, art, and speakers all combined to create a festive, inspirng atmosphere. Some 100 attendees listened to a variety of speakers, met representatives from Maryland social justice organizations, and sang along with the Charm City Labor Choir. Organizers screened the documentary Unequal Justice while guests enjoyed the same brown bag lunch that marchers in 1968 carried with them on the walk from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. The event also celebrated new artistic reflections on social justice, including a special exhibit in the museum by visual artist and illustrator Brian Collins. Many guests wrote letters to Congress to send along with the marchers, who set out the morning of Saturday, May 11.

Local attorneys, historians, journalists, and civil rights activists spoke about the original march as well as the implications of the civil rights movement today. Indeed, many of the original concerns of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign—poverty, income inequality, unemployment, and lack of affordable housing—continue to affect millions of people.

As NLG conveners Betsy Cunningham and Curtis Cooper reminded attendees, “The struggle for basic human and civil rights is part of every American’s history.”

For more information, see the NLG Maryland website, which includes an oral history of the 1968 Poor Peoples March.​