Black, Brown, and Poor: Martin Luther King Jr., the Poor People's Campaign, and Its Legacies

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2008-04-24

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Abstract

Envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967, the Poor People's Campaign (PPC) represented a bold attempt to revitalize the black freedom struggle as a movement explicitly based on class, not race. Incorporating African Americans, ethnic Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, American Indians, and poor whites, the PPC sought a broad coalition to travel to Washington, D.C., and pressure the government to fulfill the promise of the War on Poverty. Because of King's death and the campaign's subsequent premature end amid rain-driven, ankle-deep mud and just a few, isolated policy achievements, observers then and scholars since have dismissed the campaign as not only a colossal failure, but also the death knell of the modern freedom struggle.

Using a wide range of sources - from little-used archives and Federal Bureau of Investigation files to periodicals and oral histories - this project recovers the broader significance of the campaign. Rejecting the paradigm of success and failure and placing the PPC in the broader context of the era's other social movements, my analysis opens the door to the larger complexity of this pivotal moment of the 1960s. By highlighting the often daunting obstacles to building an alliance of the poor, particularly among blacks and ethnic Mexicans, this study prompts new questions. How do poor people emancipate themselves? And why do we as scholars routinely expect poor people to have solidarity across racial and ethnic lines? In fact, the campaign did spark a tentative but serious conversation on how to organize effectively across these barriers. But the PPC also assisted other burgeoning social movements, such as the Chicano movement, find their own voices on the national scene, build activist networks, and deepen the sophistication of their own power analyses, especially after returning home. Not only does this project challenge the continued dominance of a black-white racial framework in historical scholarship, it also undermines the civil rights master narrative by exploring activism after 1968. In addition, it recognizes the often-competing, ethnic-driven social constructions of poverty, and situates this discussion at the intersection of the local and the national.

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Mantler, Gordon K (2008). Black, Brown, and Poor: Martin Luther King Jr., the Poor People's Campaign, and Its Legacies. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/587.

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