Today in Native History: Natives Participate in Poor People’s Campaign
Poor People’s Campaign brings ethnicities together over common issue of poverty
On June 20, 1968, Natives protested outside the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., at the end of the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort that had been organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., to demand economic justice for people living in poverty.
The campaign, which came about a month after King’s assassination, pulled together poor people of all ethnicities in an act of civil disobedience focused on jobs and income. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty, but four years later, roughly one-fifth of all Americans still lived below the poverty line.
On Indian reservations, the unemployment rate was 10 times the national average, and as many as 60 percent of Natives lived below the poverty line. Natives who joined the Poor People’s Campaign—including activists Hank Adams, Victor Charlo and Tillie Walker—led unique protests within the larger demonstration, targeting Interior officials.
The June 20th protest outside the BIA, which lasted for several hours and included as many as 100 Natives, came as violence erupted elsewhere in the capital. Demonstrators threw rocks and bottle rockets, and police responded with tear gas and handcuffs, arresting 77 protesters outside the Agriculture Department alone, the Washington Post reported.
Native activists led a “quieter demonstration” with no reported arrests. Commissioner Robert Bennett responded with “great sympathy … for the demonstrators’ demands, which relate to food, jobs and education,” the Post reported.
Although he didn’t live to see the campaign, King envisioned it as a multi-racial, “nonviolent army of the poor,” an attention-getting protest to force lawmakers to think about the needs of all poor people.
“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on,” King said as he announced the campaign in November 1967, in partnership with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way … and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”
In early 1968, King announced his demands: an economic bill of rights that called for an annual $30 billion funding package for anti-poverty programs, passage of legislation that guaranteed employment and annual wages, and construction of 500,000 affordable housing units every year until slums were eliminated.
The campaign began in late April with a Committee of 100, a coalition of poor people including at least 10 Native activists, along with white, Hispanic, Puerto Rican and black spokespeople who presented federal agencies with a statement of demands. The committee’s purpose was to “give conspicuous and detailed witness to the poverty and degradation that rob millions of Americans of their human dignity” and to testify about “how it is to be destitute in the lap of abundance.”
Over a three-day period, committee members formally lobbied in nine federal agencies, ending with a presentation May 1 at the Interior Department. Melvin Thom, co-founder of the National Indian Youth Council, told Interior officials the department had failed Native Americans.
“We have joined the Poor People’s Campaign because most of us know that our families, tribes and communities number among those suffering most in this country,” Thom read from a prepared statement. “We are not begging, we are demanding what is rightfully ours. This is no more than the right to have a decent life in our communities.”
Thom, a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe of Nevada, called on the Interior for the rights to sovereignty and equality, for economic opportunity and Indian-run schools. He ended his speech with a demand that the Interior provide greater recreational opportunities to poor people.
“There is a lot of talk in this country about recreation, about parks, about playgrounds, camping sites,” he said. “If you are rich, if you have got wheels, if you aren’t trapped by shanties or slums, maybe then all of that talk means something to you. But to the poor people of America, those programs … might as well be trips to the moon.”
As the Committee of 100 lobbied federal agencies, groups of poor people began journeying in “trails” or “caravans” to the capital. Most Native protesters joined the “Indian Trail,” which departed from Seattle, or the “Western Caravan,” which started in Los Angeles and wound its way through Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, picking up supporters along the way, said Gordon Mantler, assistant professor of history at George Washington University and author of the 2013 book Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice.
“Native participation was scattered across many caravans, many groups,” he said. “The Native contingent wasn’t big in number, but they helped shaped the dialogue and issues in Washington.”
For example, Natives from the Pacific Northwest voiced concerns over fishing rights, Mantler said. Natives from the Southwest lobbied for rights to land or natural resources.
“This was about poor people who wanted to sustain themselves, their families,” he said. “This was not just black and white, which is how the civil rights movement was characterized, but also all the other ethnicities. What they found was that, while the roots of their poverty weren’t exactly the same, they overlapped quite a bit. They all discovered that control over where they lived was at the heart of the solution for better times.”
Once they arrived in Washington, protesters set up a camp called “Resurrection City” on the National Mall. The official march, led by Coretta Scott King, took place on May 12, but protesters remained in the capital for six weeks.
“The Poor People’s Campaign was this attempt to try to bring together a very diverse group of people who all had the common issue of poverty,” said Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. “The goal, in modern terms, was an occupy movement. It was an attempt to draw attention to a problem by occupying space. That space was the National Mall. The goal was to stay there until Congress acted on the issue of poverty.”
The campaign climaxed on June 19 with a Solidarity Day, during which as many as 50,000 additional people joined the movement. Held on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Texas, Solidarity Day included a speech by Ponca activist Martha Grass, a poor mother of 11 children in Oklahoma.
In response to the protests, lawmakers considered legislation aimed at addressing the campaign’s demands. The House Education and Labor Committee unanimously approved a bill setting up a federal commission to study hunger and malnutrition, and the Agriculture Department announced its intent to cut the cost of food stamps.
Yet the Poor People’s Campaign didn’t do enough to alleviate poverty, Mantler said. Shortly after Solidarity Day, protesters began leaving Washington.
“The campaign achieved small goals but not the larger goal,” he said. “Where it succeeded was being part of a larger process of relationship building, of people connecting with each other and seeing similarities, common goals and objectives from different parts of the country.”
The campaign officially ended June 24 when police closed Resurrection City and peacefully arrested the remaining 400 demonstrators.