The Poor People's Campaign, 50 Years Later: UB Gathers Experts, Witnesses, Activists for a Close Look at Martin Luther King's Last Milestone, As Basis for Class Available to Public
December 20, 2017
Contact: Office of Government and Public Affairs
In the months before he was assassinated in Memphis in April 1968, Martin Luther King devoted significant resources and political capital to an idea that he'd nurtured for years: A national movement to address the nation's deep-seated poverty. It was dubbed the "Poor People's Campaign," and it was reflective of King's position that every revolution requires an evolution—of thinking, activism, and in measures of success. King saw huge divisions in the United States that were economic in nature, and that further exacerbated the racial hatred and biases that the civil rights movement was intended to address.
The Poor People's Campaign did not end with King's murder on April 4 of that year. President Johnson's related package of legislative solutions addressing poverty, known as the "Great Society" effort, included important programs such as Medicare and Medicaid that continue today. Various presidential administrations have seized on the idea that Americans can be lifted out of poverty, whether by "trickle down" tax plans or "welfare-to-work" watchdog efforts. But King's last significant public movement, overshadowed by his death as well as by the assassination that same year of Robert Kennedy, the war in Vietnam and the violence at the Chicago Democratic National Convention, has largely lapsed in the public's memory of King and his achievements.
Now, a half century after the campaign and King's death, the University of Baltimore is seizing the moment to examine the campaign and its legacy, in a series of teaching and learning opportunities that will begin in January 2018. Many of these events, including lectures, discussions and exhibitions, will be available to the public at no cost.
The collective initiative, entitled "Poor People's Campaign: An Interdisciplinary Study of the 1968 Effort to Gain Economic Justice for Poor People in the United States," is co-led by Marc Steiner, director of the Center for Emerging Media, and Lenneal Henderson, distinguished professor emeritus in UB's College of Public Affairs. Henderson, Steiner and other faculty and staff members from the University's College of Public Affairs and the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences are planning a comprehensive look at the roots, actions, and legacy of the campaign—all with a goal of an increased understanding of current issues in the arc of the relevant policies' development.
Henderson and Steiner were involved in the Poor People's Campaign and present for all 42 days of its Washington, D.C. focal point, known as "Resurrection City."
"The Poor People's Campaign mobilized the poor from Appalachia to the inner city, from indigenous leaders to labor unions and even a mule train from Marks, Mississippi to Resurrection City on the D.C. mall," Henderson says. "It inspired a number of legislative successes, such as the Fair Housing Act and the Indian Civil Rights Act, but its largest legacy is its use of non-violent means to pursue social justice."
The following aspects of UB's class on the Poor People's Campaign are in active development:
- UB will hold a Winterim (January 2018) course focused on the Poor People's Campaign's history, which will feature artifacts to be exhibited outside UB's Town Hall in the Learning Commons. The exhibition will continue through the duration of the examination of the campaign, and include contributions from other archival repositories.
- UB will also hold a spring semester course (Jan. 29 through May 14) that addresses the present-day analogs for the Poor People's Campaign's themes of justice, freedom, and jobs, including: justice and policing, homelessness and housing insecurity, income inequality, voter suppression, drug policy and addiction, environmental justice, and other pressing issues.
- The spring course, modeled after UB's historic "Divided Baltimore" series—an extensive study of many of the root causes of the city's civil unrest in 2015 —will include community members, as well as offer a platform to hear from those on the front lines of the issues from King's era. Public meetings of the spring course—tentatively from 5:30 to 8 p.m. on the first two Mondays in February through May—will be held in UB's Town Hall, which allows ready access for the public.
- Various classes affiliated to the topic, such as Race and Politics and Urban Affairs, will be invited in to the series.
UB is currently seeking partners and networks to increase the visibility and efficacy of this large-scale teaching and learning effort. Organizations and agencies that would like to participate are encouraged to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The University of Baltimore is a member of the University System of Maryland and comprises the College of Public Affairs, the Merrick School of Business, the UB School of Law and the Yale Gordon College of Arts and Sciences.