The Poor People’s Campaign is a nearly forgotten protest of the civil rights movement, but in 1968 it was one of the most important expressions of the movement.
Planned by Martin Luther King Jr. but carried out after King’s assassination, the Poor People’s Campaign saw thousands of people march into Washington, DC, to join Resurrection City, an encampment on the National Mall. It was, as Vox’s Jenée Desmond-Harris has written, Occupy before Occupy, and the results it achieved were mixed. It fizzled slowly out over a period of months without ever landing a major landmark victory — but it did successfully pressure the federal government into investing heavily in food stamps and school lunches.
One of the best accounts of this almost-forgotten campaign is in an almost-forgotten essay by Peter S. Beagle. Beagle, who is best known as the author of the fantasy cult favorite The Last Unicorn, spent the 1960s working as a freelance magazine writer. In 1968, the Saturday Evening Post sent him off to cover the Poor People’s Campaign — a real immersion piece, with Beagle marching and living and demonstrating with the rest of the protesters — but the Post folded before the piece was ever published.
“The Poor People’s Campaign,” Beagle said, was the best magazine writing he ever did, but it didn’t see the light of day until he included it in his 1997 anthology The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche, and other odd acquaintances. By then, Beagle wrote, the world had changed, and not for the better: “It seems to me that today’s America not only gives far less of a rat’s ass about the poor than it did thirty years ago, but can no longer be bothered even to pretend that it cares.”
Beagle’s “Poor People’s Campaign” has its flaws — including a slightly odd fetishizing of the idea of older, virtuous black men teaching young white boys about the world — but as a first-person portrait of a chaotic and disorganized protest campaign, it is invaluable. In Beagle’s account, the movement began with beautiful ideals and energetic and enthusiastic protesters ready to march all over Washington if they had to, only to be stymied by an often absent, always poorly organized leadership from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was founded by King and carried out the campaign while still reeling from his death:
The rain wouldn’t have mattered if the campaign had been moving. Boredom and confusion — not paid agitators from SNCC [The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee], as we kept being told — were the saboteurs of Resurrection City; but at the first flicker of direction, the slightest hint of real confrontation, the marchers surged together and functioned perfectly well. They picketed the Department of Agriculture in the rain, day and night; they spoke their minds to everybody from jumpy cops with two-foot billies to Attorney General Ramsey Clark; they went to jail for singing and praying in the streets on Capitol Hill. The SCLC leaders were annoyed about that, because it hadn’t been planned in advance. Spontaneity made them as nervous as it did the Washington police.
It was all like a badly rehearsed ballet: a pas de deux between two strangers with no sense of each other’s rhythms, ambition and limitations. There are moments of frantic improvisation, but what is happening is still a ballet, with rules, and an ending, and few echoes beyond that ending. Anyone who expected something different shouldn’t have gone to a ballet.
Could it have been any different? — if Dr. King had lived, perhaps? Surely not in terms of what was achieved. I’m amazed that they squeezed as much as they did out of Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman: more money for the federal food stamp program; six new commodities added to that dole; emergency food distribution in about 250 poverty-stricken counties, and the standard programs established in 331 more. For this is Richard Nixon’s sullen hour, and the Congressman’s mail was running two and three to one against the Poor People’s Campaign. It couldn’t have ended any differently, but it didn’t have to be the staged, dishonest mess that it was. Even with all that rain.
Beagle’s achingly tender, sorrowful account of the campaign is a reminder of the enormous political power that disenfranchised people can have when they are unified en masse — and of how wastefully that power can be squandered by an incompetent leadership. It’s a powerful prescriptive for how today’s protest campaigns can plan their work. It’s also an enormously beautiful essay.