This year marks the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign. The poverty rate that so distressed him in 1968 was 12.8 percent. This year on his holiday, with the poverty rate at more than 16 percent, let us not allow the corporate media coverage to yet again ignore the great crusade for economic justice that Dr. King was spearheading by 1968.
Let us not just have the same few sentences parroted from "I Have a Dream." Wondrous though they are, Dr. King did not simply keep repeating them. No, by 1967 he was telling the nation:
We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered...
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth.
Exactly one year later, on April 8, 1968, Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, where he had come to march in solidarity with striking garbage workers.
Dr. King had gone there against the advice of his team, who said that they could not afford this interruption of the complicated planning required for the Poor People's March on Washington. Now they soldiered on: despite this incalculable loss, despite their grief, and despite the fact that the the Poor People's March turned out to be a logistical nightmare.
Thousands of impoverished folks were endeavoring to make their way across the country: from the Indian reservations of the High Plains; from barrios along the Mexican border; from hollows deep in Appalachia and, yes, from the cotton plantations along the Delta and the ghettos of the North.
The Resurrection City encampment opened in May, but the Poor People's Campaign became overwhelmed with such logistics as water supplies and sanitation. There were even a few fights, with people having come in too great of numbers to receive training in the movement's rigorous nonviolence tactics.
Then it rained. And rained. And rained, turning the Mall into a sea of mud, making it difficult to plan lobbying strategies. All of this was played up by the press. Still, people endeavored to hang on: planning, marching, meeting with members of Congress and the White House.
Then it happened: The person on whom many had subconsciously transferred much of their remaining hope, Robert F. Kennedy, himself was murdered in June. "That was it. It was like the bottom was blown out of the boat," one Mexican American leader recalled. People drifted away, defeated.
But in a way, the Poor People's Campaign did not die. It lived on in figures such as Baldemar Velásquez of Ohio.
In early 1968 Velásquez was attending college, picking crops with his family -- and had begun labor organizing among local farm workers. Then one day, "I get a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the college, asking if I would go down to Atlanta and help plan the Poor Peoples Campaign!"
At the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, surrounded by the leaders of the African American and Chicano movements, it was "history before my eyes." The young organizer was forever changed by what happened next.
The idea came up: "How do we as poor people face these monolithic institutions called international corporations and financial empires?" We said, "How can we compel them to talk to us? How can we make them talk to us?"
And Dr. King made a comment that I will never forget ... "When you impede the rich man's ability to make money, anything is negotiable."
"So remember that!" Velásquez exhorted his fellow labor activists. "Find their money line."
Find their money line. Find their money supply; find their Achilles heel, and anything is negotiable. ... That's why I revere Ray Rogers over at Corporate Campaign, because he showed us how to do this...
That's why we can negotiate multiparty collective bargaining agreements. That's why we can get the corporations, the growers, the suppliers together, all at one table, and carve out one agreement.
But we have to impact their financial ability to make money to get them to talk to us, because that talks bigger than anything...
So ¡Pa'lante*! -- and never give up.
Let us never give up. Let us honor Martin Luther King by linking up with today's visionaries. Let us together further his dream of racial justice and -- especially now -- economic justice. Let us do it rooted in love, working to build his Beloved Community.
*para adelante or "ever forward"
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