From the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign to Occupy Wall Street

As the Occupy Wall Street movement intensifies, the closing words of its first collectively written declaration grow in significance. “These grievances are not all-inclusive” acknowledges that this movement must first and foremost be an opportunity to build and expand alliances.  In refusing to set out a definitive set of policy bullet points, this movement against the common sense of capitalism is poised to critically reevaluate the accepted norms of our present society.

In this respect, a crucial intervention occurred when Manissa McCleave Maharawal blocked the inclusion of language asserting that we are “one race, the human race, formerly divided by race, class…” from the first OWS declaration.  Since then, the emergence of the People of Color Working Group, Decolonize the 99%, and numerous challenges to the rhetoric of “occupation” itself have been vital developments.  And it is in the spirit of this direction that we do well to recall the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and its insistence on linking poverty and inequality to the conditions of racism, colonialism, and militarism.

Martin Luther King, Jr. announced the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) plans for the campaign following his testimony before the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders in October 1967. Speaking to the commission he insisted that news coverage of the recent urban uprisings failed to acknowledge the “greater crimes of white society” and everyday violence of poverty. At a press conference afterwards, King declared that “The time has come if we can’t get anything done otherwise to camp right here in Washington… and stay here by the thousands and thousands until the Congress of our nation and the federal government will do something to deal with the problem [of poverty].”

The campaign that followed built a coalition propelled by the energy and diverse concerns of grassroots organizers and poor people across the country. Significant internal conflicts persisted and many participants explicitly transgressed the boundaries of the SCLC’s own reformist goals. But even after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, the momentum continued. Welfare rights, Chicano, Native American, Puerto Rican, Hispano land grant, and labor movements joined forces, arriving in Washington, DC in May 1968, and assembled a vast shanty town called “Resurrection City, USA” near the Lincoln Memorial.

Resurrection City housed more than three thousand people, and demonstrations and solidarity visits drew many thousands more to the encampment during its six weeks of existence. Residents braved torrential rains, interminable mud, undercover informants, and hostile police. Resurrection City programs included a child-care center, health and social services, a Poor People’s University with ongoing seminars and lectures, free meals, a daily newspaper, cultural activities in the Soul Center, a city council, a finance committee, and a public relations center. More than 55,000 people gathered on Solidarity Day, held on June 19th in commemoration of the infamous day in 1865 when slaves in Texas learned of the Emancipation Proclamation—two and a half years after its passage.

Throughout the campaign, participants maintained a frenetic schedule of demonstrations and meetings with legislators and federal agencies to present their broad array of demands. The range of petitions made clear that a unified position did not require minimizing the diversity of the movement’s concerns. The National Welfare Rights Organization called attention to the injustices perpetrated by the welfare system, underscoring the specific ways in which poverty was gendered and challenging the coercive regulation of poor women’s lives. Rafael Duran from New Mexico spoke about how the neglected terms of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo resulted in Hispano dispossession. In a statement on behalf of the American Indians in the campaign, Mel Thom asserted that “The Interior Department began failing because it was built upon and operates under a racist, immoral, paternalistic, and colonialistic system.  There’s no way to improve upon racism, immorality, and colonialism; it can only be done away with.”  Mary Hyde of Chicago observed: “This country spends thousands of dollars apiece to kill people in Vietnam and about $50 on each poor person in this country… We got to straighten out these Congress people’s values.”

The disparate circumstances that motivated people to participate in the campaign produced multiple perspectives that could not be adequately expressed in a single set of demands—something that perhaps the New York Times today would deride as a “lack of clear messaging.” But the form of the campaign itself—with its multiple contingents and numerous demands—underscored the irreducibility of its parts to a unified whole.  Indeed, this was as much the message as the insistence that the expropriation and poverty that were a consequence of racism, capitalism, colonial dispossession, and imperialist militarism would not go uncontested.

On June 24, 1968, Resurrection City was shut down by an immense show of paramilitary force, following two evenings of violent confrontation and escalated tension between residents and police.

And, in the sense that every protest “event” ends sometime and exit strategies require something more than a list of demands, the most radical gesture of Occupy Wall Street would be to regroup with the insights of the indigenous critique of the imperial language of “occupation” and an understanding that for many the economic crisis began long before 2008.  Because, as the Lenape scholar Joanne Barker points out, “not all 99%-ers are created equal.”  Broad coalitions are necessarily fraught, but such tensions can potentially be the source of a more expansively antiracist, anticolonial, antiwar, and anticapitalist movement to come.

Alyosha Goldstein is an associate professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico and author of the forthcoming Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century.



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