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The Great Society versus the Poor People’s Campaign

What can we learn from contrasting efforts to combat poverty and injustice in 1960s America?

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room, 18 March 1966. Credit: Yoichi Okamoto (Public Domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

A dramatic scene is unfolding this month in Washington, D.C. Angry activists march and chant outside the White House demanding an end to the violence that’s killing America’s youth. Politicians squabble and point fingers, assigning blame and deepening divisions. A chasm has opened within the Democratic Party, exposing the disconnect between wealthy, white party elites and the hardships faced by poor people in small-town America.

This story is not, however, about high schoolers pressuring for gun reform or Congressional deadlock on passing the national budget. It’s the story of The Great Society, a theatrical performance which premiered at The Arena Stage in Washington in February 2018. The play tells of President Lyndon Johnson’s vision of poverty reduction through massive government programs aimed at improving access to basic needs like education and health care, and the interplay between Johnson’s efforts and the struggles of civil rights leaders for racial and economic equality.

Written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Kyle Donnelly, the play explores how, as the Vietnam War escalated, Johnson felt forced to divert funding from anti-poverty programs to the war effort, as protesters demonstrated outside the White House in outrage at the killing of young Americans for a seemingly-endless conflict.

While Johnson’s vision of “The Great Society” was initially supported by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, it was later denounced as top-down and out of touch with the realities that faced the American poor. This eventually led King to declare a different approach to addressing economic inequality by announcing a “Poor People’s Campaign” led by the poor themselves. He was assassinated shortly thereafter, and the Campaign is often regarded as a major unfinished part of King’s work.

The play could not have opened at a more opportune moment. Indeed, much of the drama on the Arena Stage can be seen unfolding in US politics today. The show depicts the growing sense of anger and urgency that was felt among youth activists and organizers as the corruption and in-fighting surrounding the Great Society prevented funds from reaching people in need.

This is mirrored today in the explosion of grassroots organizing around injustice and inequality that’s taking place across the country, including the youth-led mobilization around gun violence that captured national attention during February 2018. It also coincides with the re-launch of King’s Poor People’s Campaign, led by Reverends William J. Barber and Liz Theoharis, which re-traces King’s steps through communities across the country and is gearing up for 40 days of mass civil disobedience in May.

Examining the reasons behind the failure of Johnson’s Great Society and how King’s Poor People’s Campaign embodied a different vision provides important historical context that is often omitted from the narrative surrounding the Civil Rights Movement. It also puts the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign into perspective, illuminating the ways in which today’s grassroots organizing both follows in the footsteps of the past and tries to overcome some of the challenges that social movements have faced.

Understanding the split between Johnson and King’s approaches to inequality.

When President Johnson originally proposed the idea of the Great Society, King welcomed it—he was excited about the idea of uplifting the poor, and saw poverty as a crucial issue underlying racial inequality in the United States. In pursuit of this vision, Johnson sought to wage a “War on Poverty” by passing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Yet in February of that year Johnson initiated airstrikes on Vietnam, enlarging America’s military presence in the country and diverting billions of dollars away from anti-poverty programs. Even before this diversion, King saw that the Great Society espoused an inherent contradiction—reliant as it was on powerful, predominantly white lawmakers devising solutions. Eradicating economic inequality would threaten the power of wealthy elites, but those elites were the same people charged with devising the programs. King became more critical of the broader economic system itself, and how capitalism creates and upholds the structures of inequality.

One example of the Great Society’s flawed programs is embodied in its approach to education through the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose resources were largely diverted to wealthy, white suburbs and not the inner cities that were in greatest need. Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, a prominent figure in the Democratic Party at the time, received substantial funding from the Johnson administration for poverty reduction but focused the money on white government workers in the city who were Daley’s political supporters, with no real benefits reaching the urban poor. Chicago Superintendent Benjamin Willis was accused of earmarking some of the $32 million for non-poor white children rather than the children of the poor.

Senator Robert Kennedy was critical of the local implementation of poverty reduction through the Great Society program, and he was not alone. Riots and demonstrations erupted around the country as people demanded economic opportunities for survival. In the summer of 1965, a riot broke out in Watts, California. King spoke at the rally before it turned hostile. A man in the audience shouted at him, “All we want is jobs! We get jobs, we don’t bother nobody. We don’t get no jobs, we’ll tear up Los Angeles, period.”

Similar feelings spread across urban America. While Johnson denounced the riots and supported the imposition of ‘law and order’ by police, King was confronted with the reality of economic hardship that was pushing people to the brink. He began to criticize Johnson’s approach to poverty reduction and the war in Vietnam, and started to develop an understanding which united the “Triple Evils” of poverty, racism and militarism—a trio he articulated in his speech at the Riverside Church in Manhattan on April 4 1967. 

“I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube,” King said in his speech, “So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

Inspiring the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign.

Much of King’s vision for a movement that was led by the poor, for the poor is embodied in the contemporary revival of the Poor People’s Campaign. The problems that emerged in the split between Johnson and King—including political corruption, the draining of domestic resources for social services by militarism, and divisions within the Democratic Party’s leadership—are just as relevant today.

The current Campaign focuses on four central issues: racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation, three of which King focused on during the original movement. But it’s not only ideological similarities that tie the two Campaigns together. Reverend Barber is retracing the same route that King took through impoverished communities, holding “barnstorming” events along the way to hear people’s personal stories and spread the word about joining the movement.

In a single day in March 1968, King barnstormed the state of Mississippi, traveling from small impoverished towns to Hattiesburg. Rev. Barber’s barnstorming drew even larger numbers than King did. King spoke to a crowd of 600 people in Chapel Hill, but only two signed up for the journey to Washington. In October 2017, hundreds of people volunteered to risk arrest after Barber’s barnstorm event in Binghamton, New York.

On February 12, 2018, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign marched with fast food workers in the $15Now movement in Memphis, Tennessee. Marchers walked the same route taken by workers in the 1968 sanitation worker strike, when 1,300 people walked off their jobs demanding the right to join a union, higher safety standards and a living wage. For the 50th anniversary of the strike, a crowd of low-income, non-unionized workers led clergy, union workers and allies, while sanitation workers who had been part of the 1968 strike spoke to the crowd alongside fast food workers demanding changes in the racism and poverty that plague Memphis to this day.

In several ways, the Poor People’s Campaign of today is poised to overcome some of the challenges that stifled the movement fifty years ago. One key difference is the dispersal of power to state and local chapters. When King organized the campaign in 1968, staff at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were tasked with organizing most of the logistical details, including the planning of caravans to travel simultaneously across the country to Washington. Today’s movement incorporates more decentralized local branches of organizers, and embodies a more horizontal leadership structure behind the scenes.

Of course, the contemporary campaign has the advantage of being a product of a longer history, one in which King’s personal transformation in how best to combat poverty eventually led to the grassroots mobilization which is mirrored around the United States today. King’s journey to launch the original Poor People’s Campaign—illustrated through the arc of his relationship with President Johnson and the Great Society—tells an important story about the power of local organizing in comparison to a top-down policy approach to social change. It also shows how grassroots movements respond to shifting circumstances like escalating tensions, public outrage and political deadlock by shifting leaders away from an ineffective establishment.

During 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign holds the potential to pick up where King’s left off by addressing many of the same problems he faced in the 1960s—while elevating the voices of the poor across the country through mass mobilization for systemic change.

About the authors

Originally from New Hampshire, Sarah Freeman-Woolpert lived for two years in the Balkans, researching and supporting youth activist movements. She now works as the Youth Social Justice Program Coordinator at the William Penn House in Washington, D.C. and serves as the Assistant Editor for the Journal of Resistance Studies.

Kyle Moore is an historian specializing in nonviolent direct action throughout American history. He is also a leader of the March on Harrisburg and part of the Pennsylvania coalition for the Poor People’s Campaign. 


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