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There is No Time Like the Present-The Poor People’s Campaign

Updated: Dec 5, 2020

By J. Isaac Noel Benjamin, II

The Poor People’s Campaign-Courtesy Photo


The quote, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime,” seems to be in dispute as to its origins. Some say that that the adage is Chinese, Native American, Italian, Indian, or Biblical. Others say it is linked to Lao-Tzu, Maimonides, or Mao Zedong. Nevertheless, this philosophy has been championed by the Poor People’s Campaign.


The Poor People's Campaign, or Poor People's March on Washington, was a 1968 effort to gain economic justice for poor people in the United States. It was organized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and carried out under the leadership of Ralph Abernathy in the wake of King's assassination.


The campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor Americans of diverse backgrounds. After presenting an organized set of demands to Congress and executive agencies, participants set up a 3,000-person protest camp on the Washington Mall, where they stayed for six weeks in the spring of 1968.


The Poor People's Campaign was motivated by a desire for economic justice: the idea that all people should have what they need to live. King and the SCLC shifted their focus to these issues after observing that gains in civil rights had not improved the material conditions of life for many African Americans. The Poor People's Campaign was a multiracial effort—including African Americans, white Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans—aimed at alleviating poverty regardless of race.

According to political historians such as Barbara Cruikshank, "the poor" did not particularly conceive of themselves as a unified group until President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty (declared in 1964) identified them as such. Figures from the 1960 census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Commerce Department, and the Federal Reserve estimated anywhere from 40 to 60 million Americans—or 22 to 33 percent—lived below the poverty line.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rate finally fell to pre-recession levels in 2018, the number of people without health insurance increased, and about one in eight Americans still lived below the poverty line. Poverty is the state of not having enough material possessions or income for a person's basic needs. Poverty may include social, economic, and political elements. Absolute poverty is the complete lack of the means necessary to meet basic personal needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. About 12% of the United States population, or 36,460,000 people, live below the poverty level.


Enter the present day Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign that was started by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was re-ignited in 2018 by Dr. William Barber and Reverend Liz Theoharis.


“It’s more like an organism than an organization,” said one of Lansing’s director, Pastor Derrick Knox. The local chapter or Lansing chapter was created in 2019. As explained by Knox, there is a National Chapter, a state chapter, and local city chapters. "While we get a lot of our directive from the national chapter," said Knox," we understand that sometimes our local and state challenges may be different from national challenges." “The agenda is to eradicate poverty, and the systems that keep people in poverty. When you uncover a lot of systems, you can see that people, organizations, programs and/or foundations make a great deal of money off of the backs of the poor," said Knox, “what we have is a list of demands and regular progress meetings. The list of demands is centered around building power from the ground up.”

One of the Poor People's Campaign's Directors Derrick Knox Jr-Photo by Alvin Holloway


Specifically, concerning poverty, “the agenda is to eradicate poverty, and the systems that keep people in poverty,” said Knox. “When you uncover a lot of systems, you can see that people, organizations, programs and/or foundations make a great deal of money off of the backs of the poor.” Following along on the Poor People's Campaign website, they had this to say about poverty: “Poverty takes an enormous toll on this country and its people every day. The economic and social costs of poverty and the injustices of systemic racism, militarism, and ecological devastation are unsustainable. The United States has the wealth to end these interlocking injustices, but the political will is lacking. This is why we are organizing among those most impacted by these injustices to compel this country to take action. Fight poverty, not the poor!”


As further explained by Knox, the need to deal with many of societies present day issues haven't gone away over time. For example, many people are still fighting for a living wage. According to government statistics, the current (2020) living wage rate is $22.10 per hour. As current stats also show, many people are finding ways to get by in today’s economy with the cost of living and current wages not keeping pace with one another. The 2020 medium income for most American families is $56,000. In some cases, that’s figure is reached as a two-income household. Interestingly, the minimum wage is not the same nationwide. Alabama's minimum wage is on the lower side at $7.25 per hour, while the District of Columbia's minimum wage is $14 per hour. Michigan's minimum wage is $9.65 per hour. In reality, a two-income household in Michigan, both making minimum wages falls below the costs of living. “As long as there are people living day-to-day in poverty, there is a need for change,” said Knox. People interested in learning more about the Poor People’s Campaign or wanting to join can check things out at http://mippc.org

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