“Rather than hold a one-day demonstration to raise awareness about income inequality, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign called on activists to camp out on the National Mall until the federal government committed to the anti-poverty policies featured in their economic bill of rights.
“For almost six weeks, about 2,700 demonstrators huddled in the plywood tents of Resurrection City, enduring rain and mud, clashes with police and, sometimes, chaos. Although conditions became rough, the event ultimately ushered in food assistance and nutrition programs that benefitted low-income people three years after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s unsuccessful war on poverty.
“‘The war on poverty was declared but never fully fought or funded, in part, because of the distraction of the Vietnam War and the amount of resources that went into the Vietnam War,’ says historian Gordon Mantler, author of Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. ‘King…had come to the conclusion that there needed to be a real dramatic effort to get the government to rededicate itself to the war on poverty, and that that was inextricably linked to the war.’
“But King never lived to see his vision play out. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968 and his death then overshadowed the Poor People’s Campaign. As the nation reeled, the campaign was forgotten—it was later described as ‘the biggest protest on the Mall that nobody’s ever heard of.’ But scholars argue the campaign deserves more recognition not only for its gains, but also for its influence on 21st-century populist movements.
“Campaign leaders presented government officials with a list of anti-poverty policy recommendations. They wanted workers to have meaningful jobs that paid a living wage and the unemployed to have a guaranteed income. They also called for the public to have access to land and capital, and for citizens to play a role in the development and implementation of government programs that affected them.”