Impact: 1968 - Today

1968 Poor People's Campaign - Challenges and Successes

Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

The Poor People's Campaign faced many challenges. SCLC leadership still was mourning Martin Luther King Jr.'s death when the campaign began. There were logistical challenges in bringing people from across the country to Washington, D.C.—feeding them, securing their safety, and finding shelter along the way. There was also the challenge of launching a large-scale national movement, in which different communities came to Washington with a wide range of needs and objectives. The SCLC had to find unity among differences. Despite these challenges, the movement had it successes and impact. 

The Poor People's Campaign marked an important transition in U.S. history. While drawing attention to poverty, the campaign also helped set the stage for future social justice movements. Additionally, as a multiethnic crusade, the voices of America's poor were heard, and the crisis of poverty in America became visible.

Hunger in America (Youtube), which aired in May 1968 on CBS, brought poverty and hunger into American homes. The program focused on poverty in four regions of the country: a Latino community in Texas; a white community in Virginia; a Native American reservation in Arizona; and an African American community in Alabama. The documentary’s portrayal of poverty’s effect on children moved Americans to write their representatives and demand the government provide assistance.

No More Hunger USA Placard

No More Hunger USA Placard

Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. 

The Poor People’s Campaign brought attention to hunger. A few months after Resurrection City closed, food programs were launched in the 1,000 neediest counties, as identified by the campaign’s objectives. A supplementary food program for mothers and children was also in progress by the end of the year. Additionally, Congress appropriated $243 million to expand and revamp school lunches to help feed hungry children.

"Hermanos con la Raza” placard, 1968

"Hermanos con la Raza” placard, 1968

Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

During the Poor People’s Campaign, the civil rights period evolved into an era of human rights crusades. In addition to changing the nature of social movements and the meaning of protest marches and community mobilization, the campaign influenced public policy on federal and local levels.

“Crusade activists and other Chicanos increased their contacts with other ethnic groups and organizations, including the tribal nations from the Southwest, the Plains states, the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere. They met African American activists from the Midwest, Northeast, and Deep South, as well as Puerto Ricans from the Midwest and Northeast. They met poor whites from Appalachia … and their veteran organizers like Miles Horton of Kentucky.” — Ernesto Vigil, The Crusade for Justice

Portrait of a man wearing a war bonnet, eyeglasses, and a pinback button that reads, INDIAN / POWER

Portrait of a man wearing a war bonnet, eyeglasses, and a pinback button that reads, INDIAN / POWER

From the Collection, © Jill Freedman

Congress extended existing labor programs, and the Senate approved an additional $5 million for Head Start and $13 million for summer jobs. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare targeted a fall 1969 deadline to eliminate all segregated school systems. Additionally, Congress approved $139 million for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s education and welfare services. The government also approved rent subsidies and home ownership assistance for the poor.

In addition to the diversity of regions and races represented by the movement, the Poor People’s Campaign rallied support from various religious denominations. The Council of Churches of the Greater Washington Area, the Catholic Archdiocese, and the Jewish Community Council each offered critical resources. With more than 600 local congregations between them, each organization helped rally volunteers, housing, food, clothing, and other support.

“Jews for Urban Justice” handmade placard, 1968.

“Jews for Urban Justice” handmade placard, 1968.

Division of Political History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

The Poor People’s Campaign introduced new strategies for protest and social change. The movement also helped transform national discussions on race, class, economic opportunities, security, and democracy. The year 1968 represented a transformative period in American history, as the Civil Rights Movement began addressing human rights issues across boundaries nationwide.

Our Hope is that we believe in America, and we come to Washington as an affirmation of that faith.

“A Declaration by the Poor People’s Campaign for 1968 Americans"