In the summer of 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. visited homes in the hamlet of Marks, Mississippi. Later he remembered the hundreds of children who lacked shoes. A mother told King that her children had no clothes for school. The Nobel laureate wept openly. “They didn’t even have any blankets to cover their children up on a cold night,” he recalled. “And I said to myself, God does not like this.” Then he vowed, “We are going to say in no uncertain terms that we aren’t going to accept it any longer. We’ve got to go to Washington in big numbers.”
In March 1968, King brought together a group of more than 50 leaders representing Black Belt sharecroppers, Appalachian coal miners, Chicano farmworkers, and American Indians, among others, to join the Poor People’s Campaign. The poor, “both white and Negro, live in a cruelly unjust society,” he said. “If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”
America’s sickness was spiritual—and would be terminal, King insisted, unless we experienced a “radical revolution of values.” A shift to the left or the right could not save us; only a movement that changed the moral narrative could refocus our priorities on building a society that honored the dignity of every person. This country had to be born again—not only in budgets and policy decisions, but in spirit.
The preacher in King knew that such a moral revival could not simply be spoken into existence. Poor people, who are so often pitted against one another, needed to unite in a national campaign of direct action to save America’s soul, King told the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Today we face a national crisis that is in many ways an intensifying of the storm that rocked America in 1968. But too often, our attempts to diagnose what ails us cannot get past the tired debates of left-versus-right politics. King’s analysis was that interlocking systems of violence, literal and metaphorical—which he called racism, poverty, and militarism—blinded most Americans to the lives of people in places like Marks. Until a Poor People’s Campaign compelled Americans to see “them” as “us,” the ideal of America would remain beyond reach. [Continue reading…]
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