By Susan O’Halloran
In 2011, Sue meets a group of young people at an Occupy Chicago demonstration who are unaware of activists’ movements in the past that occupied public lands. Sue shares the story of The 1968 Poor People’s Campaign – Dr. King’s last crusade that was carried on after his death in 1968.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: City-of-Hope
- What do the two movements – the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and the 2011 Occupy Movement – have in common? How are they different?
- Why did Dr. King want the mule train to start in Marks, Mississippi? Why did he expand his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement to include all poor people?
- Has the Occupy Movement had an influence in politics and media? (For instance, Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and movies such as The Big Short)
- Is there any cause that you would camp out for in order to express your feelings and ideas?
- The 99%: How the Occupy Wall Street Movement is Changing America by Clara Blumenkranz and Keith Gessen
- Marks, Martin and the Mule Train: The Origins of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign by Hillard Lawrence Lackey
- Civil Rights Movement
- Education and Life Lessons
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hi, I’m Susan O’Halloran. In the fall of 2011, I went to observe an Occupy Movement demonstration in Chicago. Now the Occupy Movement was happening in major cities all across the country. People were protesting home foreclosures and job loss and, more generally, the structure of the economy that’s separating, making a widening gap, between the haves and the have nots. So, I was sitting at Grant Park by Lake Michigan. And they were waiting for the sound system to show up. So, one of the organizers stood up and said, “Does anybody know a joke?” So one after another from young people to older adults, I mean, teachers and I met firemen and union workers. They started to stand up and tell silly knock, knock jokes. And I started to think about how the media sometimes, you know, portrays demonstrators. There’s always a weird one in every group that portrays them as these agitators, you know. And they looked so innocent as everybody was telling their knock, knock jokes. And then, that sound system arrived and I saw how organized they were because we had reports from different committees. There was the finance committee and the spiritual community and the diversity committee and every state representative got up and gave their report. Well, I left this peaceful demonstration. I was walking up Jackson Boulevard, up towards LaSalle Avenue and I was talking with some young people about 20 somethings. So, I asked them why they were involved in the Occupy Movement. And one tall, slender, young man with brown hair said, “Oh, we have got to make a large statement, otherwise we’ll just have these liberal reforms, you know, just a slap on the hand to Wall Street. We have got to change the whole economy.” I said, “Well, how do you think you do that?” And he said, “Well, we know economies change and we don’t live in feudalism anymore. We’ve got to make people aware of all the lies they’re being given. We’ve got to, you know, set ‘em straight and, I don’t know, after that we’ll just kind of make it up as we go along. This is a whole new thing.” I smiled. I said, “Did you know that there’s been people movements in the past that have occupied public land and they were demonstrating about the economy and such?” And they said, “No.” So I told him this story.
Right before Dr. King’s death in 1968 he had this vision for poor people’s campaign. He wanted to bring thousands of people to Washington to show that other face of America that people didn’t see. People living in poverty. Now, he was talking more and more these days about racism and how it was connected to foreign policy which meant we didn’t have a good domestic policy. He wanted to redistribute wealth. And one of the young women, slight woman with a huge backpack on said, “That’s just like us! He was just like us!”
I said, “Yeah but he had this other idea of a guaranteed annual income.”
“Wow!” they said. “How did he pull that one off?”
I said, “Well, he didn’t quit but he talked a lot about how many people were never really fairly compensated for their work and how the rich were subsidized all the time, so why not support the common man?”
But then Dr. King was assassinated. 1968, April. Now everybody was in grief and disarray but they decided to continue with this idea. So, May 13th, was the beginning of the poor people’s campaign. Thousands of people camping out for six weeks in the Washington Mall to try to bring visibility to the poverty that existed in our country. And the young people said to me, “Wow, imagine organizing that. Thousands of people overnight. We’re, we’re excited if a couple of hundred people will come out with us and some will stay overnight and sleep on the sidewalks.” Well, what happened is Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King’s successor, opened it up by being dressed in a Levi’s jacket, no shirt, carpenter’s apron and driving the first nail into the two by four. And as he did everybody shouted, “Freedom, freedom.” And at first it was all enthusiasm and everybody was organized. They had three men teams that would build A-frames. Put them up in 15 minutes, another house, another house. A lot of people said this first house I ever had. And they’d decorate their house with stars and dots or they put a name like the Sugar Shack or they put some inspirational phrase like vinceremus, we shall overcome.
But there was a big split going on leadership people didn’t necessarily know about. Some thought they should use Dr. King’s confrontational, nonviolent way. They should get themselves arrested, fill the jails, move the moral conscience of the country that there were people who couldn’t even feed their kids. But then there was a whole other contingent. See, after Dr. King died, I told the young people, there were riots all across the country. And like, “No, no. We got to make sure there’s no violence. Sometimes when there’s a arrest there could be violence. We got to come in soft. We’ve got to do softer demonstrations; we’ll build to this big solidarity rally.” Because you see, the Congress had really moved to the right. They were all law and order after all the riots. And the FBI was not treating the Poor People’s Campaign like fellow citizens exercising their right to speech. They were treating ‘em like an invading army and were sabotaging at every turn. And President Johnson had kind of lost some support for civil rights when Dr. King started speaking out about the Vietnam War. So, the young people said, “Who won out? The confrontational ‘Let’s get arrested’ or are the non-confrontational?”
I said, “Well, it was the ‘let’s not make trouble’ group.” They really had to watch it. So, what they did when they’re about 40 different small demonstrations they go to different departments of the government make their demands, their speeches, sing some songs, come back to camp.
“Was it the right way to go?” said the young man to me.
I said, “Well, see that, you never know when you’re in the middle of it do you? Just like you all don’t know if your strategies are going to work. But, I got to tell you, I don’t know whether they did one way or the other if anything were to work because of outside forces beyond their control.”
“Like what?” they said.
“Weather. Weather,” I said. “It rained day after day after day that whole camp turned into a muddy quagmire. And the big food tent collapsed under the weight of all that rain. And they never had the chance to finish the plumbing and the sanitation and the drainage system so they had to bus people out to even bathe.”
“Wow!” said that same girl. She said, “We just had to figure out what restaurants will let us use the bathroom.” Yeah, and talk about food. They never get the hot meal plan together so every day… think of it. Six weeks. Same thing, bologna and cheese, salami and cheese, ham and cheese, cheese and cheese. And people’s spirits go down when they’re not eating well. “Tell me about it,” said the young man. He held up a bag of chips. “This is my dinner.” Well, solidarity came without a hitch. Hundreds of buses showed up. Big name entertainment, kind of a picnic atmosphere but everybody said there wasn’t that feeling like the 1963 March on Washington.
Very few people believed it would really have much impact. In those last weeks, only a few hundred people remained and it turned into an unruly site. All kinds of arrests. So the night of June 24th, the government met with Ralph Abernathy, some of the other leaders to try to plan. How were they going to bring this camp down in a peaceful way? So, the leaders of the poor people campaign had demonstration, brought people, as many they could offsite and policemen moved in. In 90 minutes they just tore apart their camp and it was gone. “So,” they said to me. “Failure or success. What do you think?” I said, “See, it always depends how you look at it.”
Here’s a high point for me for the Poor People’s Campaign. Marian Wright, a civil rights leader, a lawyer. One day, about the fourth week into the campaign, she had sh… she got this impromptu group. It was black and Chicano, representatives of First Nations, poor whites, to go with her to a Senate committee. She got them to talk in front of a Senate committee about their lives. What was this unseen America? What was it like to live among broken promises and not even be able to provide for your children or get the most basic shelter? Now it had its impact because George McGovern was in that committee. And a couple of years later when Senator McGovern, this was before he ran for president, was the head of the Senate Select Committee on nutrition needs and human needs. They work, they do a lot of things, but they pass the food stamp law. “Wait a minute,” said one of the young men. “You’re telling me it took a massive six-week campaign and years of legislation before they even passed food stamps.”
“Yep,” I said. “It kind of shows what the Poor People’s Campaign was up against.”
We were at my car by then and I said to them, “I know you think of something like food stamps, like a liberal reform. It didn’t change the whole economic structure by any means. When I think of all the thousands of families that have been fed and cared for by that one program, I’m really grateful for all those people in 1968 that came and exercised their right of free speech to try to make the country see, that there were people who were in poverty right in front of her eyes that we weren’t seeing. I always feel like we’re standing on mighty big shoulders. I mean we’re not in this alone. We didn’t just invent this now.”
Well, we said our goodbyes and the mother in me came out, I had to say, “Now you be careful sleeping on the sidewalk tonight.” I started driving back home, I thought, I don’t know how you change your whole economic system. But I do know that honoring the past and learning from the past is one of the keys to success. Learning what did work as well is what didn’t work. I was really glad I got to share that story with the young people and I looked forward to hearing more of theirs.