Gordon K. Mantler: Remembering that Other March on Washington

Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974, by Gordon K. MantlerWe welcome a guest post today from Gordon K. Mantler, author of Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974. In a major reinterpretation of civil rights and Chicano movement history, Mantler demonstrates how King’s unfinished Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 became the era’s most high-profile attempt at multiracial collaboration and sheds light on the interdependent relationship between racial identity and political coalition among African Americans and Mexican Americans. Mantler’s book is the inaugural volume in our Justice, Power, and Politics series.

Today, April 4, is the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 2013 also marks the 50th anniversary of King’s most famous march on Washington, where he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. But in the following guest post, Mantler urges us to remember another march on Washington that King helped plan but did not attend.

This spring, the nation will begin to commemorate the first of several 50th anniversaries from the civil rights era, including the Birmingham campaign and the desegregation of the University of Alabama. None, however, will be more celebrated than the March on Washington that took place on August 28, 1963. The 1963 march most likely will be remembered for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream,” a single speech that lasted sixteen minutes. Few accounts of the day, however, will mention that the march was a complicated and at times contentious affair, the culmination of more than twenty years of black labor activism.

That is to be expected. “I Have a Dream” is King at his best, in terms of style, cadence, and emotional appeal. Its call for universal brotherhood is hopeful and optimistic, and it reflects the best, most generous impulses of the early 1960s, the “beloved community,” and even President John F. Kennedy’s liberalism. Yet highlighting King at this precise moment in 1963 tends to freeze him in the public’s memory and, as a result, obscures the complexity of the man, the movement, and the 1960s.

Less than five years later, in 1968, King championed another march on Washington. Called the Poor People’s Campaign, King’s last crusade called for a small army of nonviolent protesters—made up of poor folks and their allies—to descend upon Washington, D.C., to demand that the federal government rededicate itself to the War on Poverty and “secure jobs or income” for all. The poor, King stated, would “stay until America responds.” But while this crusade received considerable attention at the time, it has been mostly forgotten. Why? One reason is that King did not live to see the campaign occur that spring. In the eyes of many supporters, the campaign—even the African American freedom struggle as a whole—could not succeed without his leadership.

This presumption, of course, turned out not to be true and his successors carried on. Yet, beyond small gains in food and welfare policy, the campaign achieved few of its lofty policy objectives. It did not prompt a substantive War on Poverty. It did not reinvigorate nonviolent strategy in the movement. And it did not reestablish King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference as the flagship civil rights organization of the 1960s.

But while the campaign may not have been successful in terms of generating sympathetic media coverage or spurring legislative action, it signaled an extraordinary moment in the history of the long civil rights movement. Only during the Poor People’s Campaign did activists of so many different backgrounds—from veterans of the labor and southern civil rights movements to Chicano, American Indian, antiwar, and welfare rights activists—attempt to construct a physical and spiritual community that addressed poverty and broader issues of social justice for longer than a one-day rally. The campaign highlighted poverty’s potential for coalition building among people of many races and ethnicities, as well as the messiness of trying to make that coalition work. Ironically, the campaign’s greatest achievement was to embolden activists in other movements beyond the black freedom struggle, particularly people of Mexican descent in the Chicano movement. People such as Carlos Montes, Gloria Arellanes, and others who went to Washington that spring built lasting ties that became building blocks for Chicano activism into the 1970s.

Thus the campaign’s uneven legacy offers a second reason why it has become so invisible. It is a stark and uncomfortable reminder of the “unfinished business” of the African American freedom struggle and its most prominent spokesman in Martin Luther King Jr. In the last years of his life, King challenged the residential segregation of the North, called the U.S. government the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence” in his critique of the Vietnam War, and demanded a massive redistribution of income. It turns out that the freedom struggle was not just about desegregation and brotherhood, but also full dignity, educational opportunity, and economic citizenship for everyone.

During the coming months, we rightfully should commemorate the genuine achievements of the long civil rights movement. But we also should remember that many in the 21st century still find this more complex dream of equality and opportunity to be remarkably elusive.

Gordon K. Mantler is a lecturing fellow and associate director in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University. Read his previous guest post on our blog, “For Latinos, It’s Not All about Immigration.”