Sunday, April 08, 2007

The ill fated second phase of the civil rights struggle

Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see. - Martin Luther King

It's become a TV ritual: Every year on April 4, as Americans commemorate Martin Luther King's death, we get perfunctory network news reports about "the slain civil rights leader."
The remarkable thing about these reviews of King's life is that several years -- his last years -- are totally missing, as if flushed down a memory hole.
What TV viewers see is a closed loop of familiar file footage: King battling desegregation in Birmingham (1963); reciting his dream of racial harmony at the rally in Washington (1963); marching for voting rights in Selma, Alabama (1965); and finally, lying dead on the motel balcony in Memphis (1968).
An alert viewer might notice that the chronology jumps from 1965 to 1968. Yet King didn't take a sabbatical near the end of his life. In fact, he was speaking and organizing as diligently as ever.
Almost all of those speeches were filmed or taped.
But they're not shown today on TV.
It's because national news media have never come to terms with what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for during his final years.
The Martin Luther King You Don't See on TV

By 1967, King had become the country's most prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, and a staunch critic of overall U.S. foreign policy, which he deemed militaristic. In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 -- a year to the day before he was murdered -- King called the United States "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today."

Time magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi," and the Washington Post declared that King had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

A New York Times editorial called the speech an "error" and the NAACP agreed, calculating that merging the peace movement with the civil rights movement would only weaken both causes.

Dawn of the Second Phase

The idea for the Poor People's Campaign grew out of what King termed the "second phase" of the civil rights struggle. After the "first phase" had exposed the problems of segregation through nonviolence, King hoped to address what he called the "limitations to our achievements" with a second phase. In its ideology and style, the Poor People's Campaign demonstrated a merging of the first-phase tactics into second-phase goals. Through nonviolent direct action, King and SCLC hoped to focus the nation on economic inequality and poverty.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference
(SCLC) planned the Poor People's Campaign to be the most massive, widespread campaign of civil disobedience yet undertaken by a movement. They aimed to bring 1,500 protesters to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and other governmental agencies for an "economic bill of rights." Specifically, the campaign requested a $30 billion anti-poverty package that would include a commitment to full employment, a guaranteed annual income measure, and increased construction of low-income housing.

Although Ralph Abernathy (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest advisor during the civil rights struggle) had taken over as SCLC president following King's death, the campaign's leadership lacked the momentum that King might have provided. The combined setbacks of bad press, Robert Kennedy's assassination, and an overwhelming number of protesters (7,000 at its peak) further limited the campaign's effectiveness. Failing to force a response from legislators, the Poor People's Campaign closed camp on 19 June 1968.

Also of note:
The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) was the brainchild of Syracuse University professor George Wiley, a Congress of Racial Equality member who left academia in 1964. In 1965 he formed the Poverty/Rights Action Center, which would evolve into the NWRO two years later. The NWRO advocated for improvements in the lives of welfare recipients, including dignified treatment and payments sufficient to maintain a decent quality of life. The NWRO joined with the SCLC in 1968's Poor People's Campaign and nearly reached agreement on welfare reform with the Nixon administration, only to see the deal collapse over the issue of guaranteed incomes for recipients.

A trail of tears

In the midst of organizing, King detours to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he is assassinated on April 4, 1968. Riots erupt around the country as people mourn the loss. On 12 May 1968 the first wave of demonstrators arrived in Washington, D.C. One week later, Resurrection City was built on the Washington Mall, a settlement of tents and shacks to house the protesters. Demonstrators were sent out to various federal agencies to protest and spread the message of the campaign.

In the midst of their efforts, word comes that presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, a champion of civil rights, has been assassinated in California. In recognition of the poor people's protest, the hearse bearing Kennedy's body is brought through the encampment in Washington... and soon Resurrection City is shut down.