Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign

We all know about Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s. civil rights work and his famous I have a dream speech delivered in Washington in 1963 because of the power of the media to shape what we think. I want to discuss what the mainstream media doesn’t cover on Dr. King, his thinking and action in the last few years of his life.

Consider what Reverend King was working on at the time he was assassinated in Memphis in April 4 1968. The United States of America, was at that time committing atrocities in Vietnam similar to those we are doing in Iraq today. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out a year before his death in his Beyond Vietnam speech at Riverside Church in New York. He called the US “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” The Enron’s Bechtel’s and Haliburton’s of that era were not pleased by his efforts. Public opposition could end the free-flowing profits they had enjoyed. Time magazine called his speech “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.” The Washington Post patronized that “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

Dr. King saw that economic segregation was not limited to skin color. The people going off to fight in Vietnam were poor people, whether they were poor blacks or whites. Those of greater means found ways of avoiding service. The administration had declared a war on poverty, but like our never ending war on terrorism, it eventually became a war on the poor. To King our invasion of Vietnam was a war against the poor. He felt Congress demonstrated its “hostility to the poor” — appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.” Sound familiar? To Martin Luther King Jr. the increasing gap between rich and poor at that time was the key battle. He formulated the Poor People’s Campaign to culminate in an encampment of 500,000 of the nation’s poorest and most alienated citizens who were to erect a tent city near the Washington Memorial in DC in the spring of 1968. They would then lobby their elected officials for legislation to oppose the war on the poor and draft an economic bill of rights. Reader’s Digest warned of an “insurrection.”

How would the rich and powerful react when faced with the possibility of 500,000 people camping in DC to protest the social and economic injustices that so many Americans were exposed to then? King, a man recognized around the world, and honored with a Nobel Prize now was turning his attention toward poverty. If he were unknown, he could be deemed a terrorist threat to national security and quietly banished to Guantanamo.

With half a million poor people camped on the Mall in DC, the other millions of poor people would act in solidarity, all around the country and the world. To restrain them, the rulers would have to mobilize a large army, but that would be difficult as most troops were over in Vietnam. Other tactics were necessary.

Before the Poor People’s Campaign in the spring of 1968 King supported a Memphis sanitation worker’s strike on March 18, and called for a general work stoppage there. He tried to lead a peaceful march on the 28 that was disrupted and rescheduled for April 5. On April 3, Dr. King checked into the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he was assassinated on the balcony the next day. James Earl Ray entered a plea of guilty and was never tried, but sentenced to the state penitentiary where he died in 1998.

Martin Luther King Jr., tried to expose truth, not by speaking truth to power, power doesn’t listen, but by speaking truth about power. A man of his capabilities and stature could be successful in carrying out the Poor People’s Campaign and getting half a million poor people camped on the mall which would be a big threat to the rich and powerful. So the US government used violence on America’s greatest prophet of non-violence. A civil trial took place in December 1999 in Memphis where King was murdered, and a jury of six whites and six blacks found that the US government conspired to murder Martin Luther King Jr. Most of you are unaware of that trial.

If you go to the King Center website, under news and information, you will find the transcripts of the month long trial together with the verdict. More details are in a book AN ACT OF STATE: The execution of Martin Luther King by William F. Pepper, King’s attorney. Where was Time Magazine, Reader’s Digest and the Washington Post? Why didn’t the media cover this story with glaring headlines? Our commercial media are safely outfoxed, embedded in the henhouse so we can not expect to be fed news that might threatened their interests. But I urge you to check out the facts about this unknown aspect of King’s death.

In Martin Luther King’s day, there were only a handful of countries healthier than the US, but now there are over 25. We in the US, the richest and most powerful country in world history are less healthy than people in the other rich countries and a few poor ones . The feds give the reasons for our poor health as being because of the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. Exactly the issues Martin Luther King Jr. drew attention to in the last years of his life. He used the peaceful means of public demonstrations he knew best. King said: “Of all the inequalities, inequalities in health are the most inhumane of all.”

Today a black man in Harlem has a shorter life than a man in Bangladesh, a black man in DC lives less long than a man in Ghana. The disparities in health in the US and in the world have increased, with so-called progress since King’s time.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr’s life we see that he thought for himself, he observed, discussed, and acted upon his convictions. He worked peacefully, recognizing the power of mobilizing large numbers of people to press for their interests. These strategies are really the only ones available to those of us who are not the rich and powerful few. Peaceful protest by large numbers of knowledgeable people are incredibly effective.

In evidence-based medicine parlance, they are Class I interventions. Today resurrecting King’s Poor People’s Campaign can serve our citizens well. The need is ever greater . Today we have many more homeless in our face perhaps ten to fifteen million or more than in Reverend King’s time. We have the highest child poverty of any rich country, and shameful outcomes on so many indicators of human welfare. Yet we have half of the world’s billionaires, 281. The rich and powerful will not give up their wealth and power without a mass movement to compel them to do so. I urge you to carry out the unfinished work of this great American.

Martin Luther King Jr. was able to recognize the critical issues impacting not just African Americans but all of us. He had effective ways of drawing attention to these problems. He paid the ultimate price for this efforts. King can inspire us to follow in his footsteps to continue the Poor People’s Campaign and to push for an economic bill of rights. Remember his words: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Stephen Bezruchka teaches in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Washington. For details on the trail go to: For details on the health status of the United States in comparison to other countries, go to the Population Health Forum’s website:

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