Civil rights "unfinished business": poverty, race, and the 1968 Poor People's Campaign
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In May 1968, a racially, geographically, and politically diverse coalition of poor people joined forces to make themselves visible to the nation and protest the unseen poverty they suffered from on a daily basis. Under the leadership of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) between 3,000 and 5,000 African American, Mexican American, American Indian, Puerto Rican, and white Appalachian poor people caravanned to Washington, D.C., and built a temporary city--Resurrection City--on the symbolic space of the National Mall, where they remained for over six weeks as part of the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. The caravans and temporary shantytown brought poverty into the national spotlight, exposing the bleak conditions impoverished people experienced on a daily basis. In Resurrection City volunteers provided participants with social services and basic necessities they lacked at home, while participants conducted daily protests at nearby government agencies, demanding assistance for the basic need of housing, food, and jobs. The ultimate goal of the 1968 Poor People's Campaign was to produce a radical redistribution of wealth in the U.S., but most involved in the movement hoped, if nothing more, to expose the pervasiveness of poverty and persuade Congress to fund new programs and improve the administration and benefits of existing ones. This radical social experiment was the first national, multiracial anti-poverty movement of the era, yet it has received scant scholarly attention. "Civil Rights' 'Unfinished Business'" provides a comprehensive narrative of this significant yet neglected movement that reveals the complexity of national, grassroots, multiracial, class-based activism that challenged the nation to face the problem of poverty during the most tumultuous years of the era. Civil rights scholars tend to dismissively characterize the Poor People's Campaign (PPC) as the last gasp of the civil rights movement--a failed campaign with no substantial lasting consequences. However, this dissertation argues that rather than simply being Martin Luther King Jr.'s "last crusade," the PPC represents civil rights' "unfinished business." The problems this campaign tried to address--hunger, joblessness, homelessness, inadequate health care, a failed welfare system--still persist, and people of color, particularly women and children, continue to experience poverty and its effects disproportionately.