The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is most remembered for his leadership of the civil rights movement. But at the end of his life, King was preparing to shift that struggle from one based primarily on racial injustice to one responding to the economic inequality plaguing Americans of all colors.
Much has been written about the progress made since King’s death in improving the state of race relations, and progress there has been, although much remains to be done. But poverty remains a seemingly intractable flaw in the richest society on earth, 50 years after King was assassinated.
In the fall of 1967, King told a staff retreat of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that the next step would be the Poor People’s Campaign. Only when blacks and other minorities had economic security would they achieve true equality, he believed.
“This is a highly significant event,” King said at a meeting in March 1968, where plans were made for a march of poor people on Washington, D.C., to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage and education. A month later, King was dead. His fellow civil rights leaders carried on with the march starting in May, setting up a six-week encampment called Resurrection City on the National Mall.
At the time, nearly 13 percent of the population lived in poverty. Today, the figure is 12.7 percent.
The People’s Campaign was widely considered a failure. Half a century later, the homeless on our streets are a symptom of our continued failure.