SCLC’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign button
“This is what you’ve been waiting for,” the auctioneer said directly to me. He was as much a regular at auctions as me – him working as both an auctioneer and a big spender on items he sells in Panama – and he knew my preferences.
He was flipping through a box lot of sheet music featuring African American images that he was about to hold up for bids. This was not the first time he’d called me out on an item for which I had waited – interminably, it seemed – to bid on. The last time it was a book of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
He was right that time, but was off the mark this time. I had plenty of sheet music at home, I replied, and this grouping didn’t interest me.
The box lot next to it did. On first glance, it was a nothing box of small junk trinkets that most buyers would ignore, but I had found something that was awash in African American history:
A pinback button for the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign conducted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The button bore black-and-white photos of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, leaders of the campaign.
I didn’t ask the auctioneer to sell the button separately for fear that I’d alert another buyer. Instead, I asked him to pull that particular box instead of combining it with another, which auctioneers sometimes do when confronted with a box lot with little of value in it.
He did, and as I jumped on the first bid, another buyer took the next one. Now that $5 box of nothing was moving ahead of what I wanted to pay for it. I got the box, though, and learned that the other bidder was interested only in a small metal mount for a military ribbon.
I wanted that button for the history inherent in it. King and the SCLC were in the midst of the Poor People’s Campaign when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968. They had been through the firestorm of civil rights protests for dignity in the early 1960s, and they were about to change their tactics. The earlier struggles, King realized as riots erupted around the country, did not get to the gist of the problems facing most people in America: poverty. He was also disturbed by the War in Vietnam, and was looking for a new direction for the cause.
It came in the form of a suggestion from activist and Mississippi attorney Marian Wright (who would become Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund). In a conversation with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, he had suggested that she tell King to consider coming to Washington to demonstrate for economic rights, Edelman said in a 1988 interview.
The campaign got started in November 1967 when King announced that the nonviolent fight for equality would extend to unemployment, insufficient housing and other such issues of poverty. He got pushback from members of the SCLC who felt the plan was too grand, but King saw it “‘as pure as a man needing an income to support his family.”
The organizers spent the next few months preparing for the campaign, the linchpin of which would be a mass demonstration in Washington. They pulled together people from a number of states and cultures: African Americans, poor whites, Latinos, Native Americans. The campaign also issued flyers, press releases and brochures in the spring explaining the plan.
A call from Memphis took King on a side trip to march with striking African American sanitation workers, whom he saw as representative of the people of this new movement. After he was killed in that city, SCLC decided to proceed with the campaign under the leadership of Abernathy.
The first group of demonstrators arrived in the nation’s capital on Mother’s Day with Coretta Scott King. The next day, Resurrection City was set up with tents and shacks on the National Mall, where thousands would stay for a month marching and lobbying Congress. They came armed with an economic bill of rights that included full employment, an annual income for all and more low-income housing.
The camp grew to about 7,000 people who endured driving rain, mud, and conflicts and tension within their ranks and discouragement and sabotage tactics outside. Kennedy, one of their most ardent supporters who was seeking the U.S. presidency, was assassinated on June 5, and his death impacted the campaign. On the day of his funeral, the hearse bearing his body rolled though Resurrection City.
The camp was dismantled a few weeks later. The campaign never reached its goal.