The Intersection Between Race and Poverty in the Poor People’s Campaign (by Andrea Nguyen)

The Intersection Between Race and Poverty in the Poor People’s Campaign

Standards (Grade 11-12)

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
  • Evaluate author’s premises, claims and evidence by corroborant or challenging them with other information.
  • Analyze the persistence of poverty and how different analyses of this issue influence welfare reform, health insurance reform, and other social reforms.


This course is designed for students to understand societal conditions which inspired the Poor People’s Campaign. Students will be asked to explore the appeal of the Campaign’s message and how it relates to the Campaign’s roots in the black community. Then, students will examine primary and secondary sources in order to gain understands of the connection between poverty and race as seen in Martin Luther King Jr.’s eyes in the 1960’s and why he, along with SCLC decided to organize this campaign. They will analyze two key MLK speeches that initiated his transition from civil rights to human rights activism, explore the people’s campaign website to monitor the changes made by this campaign from the 1960s to modern time, analyze scholarly critics made toward the Poor People’s Campaign, and finally apply learned knowledge regarding this topic to evaluate the persistence of poverty within community of color in contemporary America.

Through completion of this course, not only will students become more knowledgeable on the intersection between race and poverty in The Poor People’s Campaign, they will also be able to apply past issues to present crisis. They will be more critical of modern political messages and movements happening in their own community. Using the Poor People’s Campaign and sources they encountered in this course, students will become more empathetic towards factors that are outside of individual’s control. In other word, they will gain the ability to shed their own personal outlook on situation and view conflicts from various perspective. For example, students will question why communities are disadvantaged or kept disadvantaged in modern society using historical evidence rather than believing their conditions to be self-inflicted.

Essential Understanding

Student will understand the transition from the civil rights movements to the human rights movements through an analysis of King’s view on the connection between race and poverty as well as the Poor People’s Campaign and its multiracial effort to address poverty in Post-WWII America.

Essential Questions

  • What arguments were made toward the shift from civil rights to human rights occur according to Martin Luther King Jr?
  • What was the Poor People’s Movement?
  • What vision did King and SCLC have when they launched The Poor People’s Campaign?
  • How does this issue of poverty reflect communities of color today?


  • Civil rights: Civil rights, are those rights that one enjoys by virtue of citizenship in a particular nation or state. In America, civil rights have the protection of the U.S. Constitution and many state constitutions. Civil rights protect citizens from discrimination and grant certain freedoms, like free speech, due process, equal protection, the right against self-incrimination, and so forth. Civil rights can be thought of as the agreement between the nation, the state, and the individual citizens that they govern.
  • Human rights: Human rights are generally thought of as the most fundamental rights. They include the right to life, education, protection from torture, free expression, and fair trial. Many of these rights bleed into civil rights, but they are considered to be necessities of the human existence. As a concept, human rights were conceived shortly after World War II, particularly in regard to the treatment of Jews and other groups by the Nazis.
  • SCLC: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is an African-American civil rights organization. SCLC, which is closely associated with its first president, Martin Luther King Jr., had a large role in the American civil rights movement. This organization sets out to challenge and eliminate segregation from African American society in a non-violence matter under King’s leadership.
  • COINTELPRO: Short for Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO was a series of covert, and at times illegal, projects conducted by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI) aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations. FBI records show that COINTELPRO resources targeted groups and individuals that the FBI deemed subversive, including activists of the civil rights movement or Black Power movement such as Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Operation POCAM: One of the first major projects involving the Ghetto Informant Program (GIP), an intelligence- gathering operation run by the FBI, was Operation POCAM, the FBI’s effort to monitor and disrupt the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.


The origin of the Poor People’s Campaign traces back to the emergence of several urban race riots occurring in cities such as Detroit and Newark in the summer of 1967. This form of mass violence in America is composed of hostile confrontations between black residents and white government officials, resulting in hundreds of deaths and several injured. Poor African Americans, particularly women, suffered from racism and sexism that amplified the impact of poverty, especially after “welfare mothers” became a nationally recognized concept. In response to the social disorder that is still occurring in the black communities, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the SCLC in Atlanta through the speech “Crisis in America’s Cities” where he identifies the causes of the violence and a plan of action against discrimination and racism in urban America.  King observed gains in civil rights have not improve living conditions of many African American, thus initiating this shift form civil rights to human rights activism. SCLC released a statement which claimed “The issue at stake is not violence vs. nonviolence but POVERTY AND RACISM”.[1] King believed that African American and other minorities would never enter full citizenship until they had economic security.[2] This led to his idea of organizing a campaign that will be “nonviolent, but militant, and as dramatic, as dislocative, as disruptive, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying property”.[3]

On December 4, 1967 SCLC announce the Poor People’s Campaign by having King deliver a speech regarding the goal and intention of this campaign. The Campaign sought to help the poor by dramatizing their needs, uniting all races under the commonality of hardship and presenting a plan to start to a solution.[4] In an attempt to protest against the nation’s poverty rate in 1968, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led between 3,000 and 5,000 African American, Mexican American, American Indian, Puerto Rican, and the white Appalachian poor people caravanned to Washington, DC. There, they built a temporary city – Resurrection City—on the symbolic space of the National Mall, where they remined for over six weeks as part of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.[5] Despite only lasting for 42 days, Resurrection City was able to produce subtle changes such as more money for free and reduced lunches for school children and Head Start programs in Mississippi and Alabama. The United States Department of Agriculture also released surplus commodities to the nation’s one-thousand poorest counties, food stamps were expanded, and some federal welfare guidelines were streamlined.

Deeper understanding of this united multiracial movement and analysis of primary and secondary sources such as King’s speeches and scholarly remarks regarding the campaign, will give glimpses to young historians to the transition from civil rights to human rights. Additionally, young historians will also be able to draw connections between poverty and race in post-WWII America through the Poor People’s Campaign.

Materials Martin Luther King Jr.’s Crisis in American Cities Speech . Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign Speech . The Poor People’s Campaign Website. The Poor People’s Campaign in Modern Time. PDF for “Civil Rights “unfinished Business”: Poverty, Race, and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.”


Day 1 (45-50 minutes):

  • Students will spend the first 5-10 minutes of class analyzing and discussing the following quote mentioned in an excerpt of MLK’s “The Crisis in America’s Cities” speech.
    • “To war against your own people, while warring against another nation, is the ultimate in political and social bankruptcy.”
    • Students are encouraged to discuss questions and share their thoughts to the class
      • What historical context can be inferred from the quote?
      • What does it mean to have political and social bankruptcy?
    • Break students into small groups of 4-5 and hand out the longer excerpt of MLK’s “The Crisis in America’s Cities” speech. Reading should not take longer than 10 minutes
    • Each group will have a mini poster by their group where they can write 4-5 facts which they thought were important from the excerpts and why they found those facts important.
    • Students will present their poster to the class, walk around to view other group’s poster and write comments on what they like for each poster.
    • Ask students how their thoughts for the quotes initially presented at the beginning of class changed or stay the same after class
    • Class will wrap up with students going back to their seats and ask any lingering questions regarding this crisis that can be further elucidated.
    • Homework: Students will be asked to explore the Poor People’s Campaign web-page and write a few paragraphs on the Campaign’s history, purpose, goals and any interesting facts they come across.

Day 2 (45-50 minutes):

  • Students will spend the first 5-10 minutes of class analyzing discussing the following excerpt mentioned in the history section of the Poor People’s Campaign web-page.

You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.

  • Some questions for students to consider includes: How did King use this to relate back to the current situation of the black communities and previously learned in Day 1? Who were the Pharaoh and slave that King referred to? What can be inferred from this passage? How do you feel about King’s use of metaphor?
  • Students will now spend 5-10 minutes discussing what their findings on the Poor People’s Campaign website to their neighbors and the class.
  • Hand out MLK’s campaign launch speech and allow students 10 minutes to read.
    • Some questions to consider while reading: What method did King impose in his speech to draw the attention of his audience? What key ideas did King present throughout his speech regarding his goals and purpose for this campaign?
  • Students will spend the rest of class creating an artistic representation, this includes drawings or poetry, or a few paragraphs on the following prompt:
    • What was the relationship between race and poverty that King saw in his speeches? What do you believe to be the relationship between race and poverty?
    • Keep the artistic project to share with the class first thing tomorrow.
  • For homework, students will be asked to read and take notes on pages 346 – 417 of “Civil Rights “unfinished Business”: Poverty, Race, and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign,” Then each student must come up with 3 questions that will promote analytical inquiry of the reading.
    • An example question is “What impact did Resurrection City have on the Poor People’s Movement?”

Day 3 (45-50 minutes):

  • No starting quotes today but students will spend the first 5-10 minutes of class sharing the artistic project they created the previous days and their interpretation of the given prompt.
  • There will be an in-class discussion for the next 30 minutes of class where students will move into a large circle and discuss the understanding on Resurrection City and its relationship to the Poor People’s Movement as well as civil rights vs. human rights.
  • Class will wrap up with any lingering questions regarding ideas and topics we’ve learned and discussed thus far.
  • Homework: write a one-page reflection regarding the transition of civil rights to human rights and what effect the Poor People’s Campaign had in the targeted communities.

Day 4 (45-50 minutes):

  • Rather than a starting quote, students will spend the first 5-10 minutes of class answering and sharing their responses to the following question: How do you see the Poor People’s Campaign play out in contemporary America?
  • Students will watch and take notes on a 30 minutes documentary of the Poor People’s Campaign in modern America.
    • As documentary is occurring, pass around a sign-up sheet for student to claim a time slot that they would like to present their final project.
  • Class will end with students sharing their thoughts on the similarities and differences between 1960’s Poor People’s Campaign and present-day Poor People’s Campaign.
  • As homework, student will research a community in poverty in modern American of their choice and thoroughly discuss 1-2 factors that they believe to have caused or kept the community in that situation using history context learned in class to support their claim. Then students will create a 5-7 minutes presentation addressing the community that they chose, why they chose it, the economic issues experienced by that community, the factors which student to believe to have caused this situation, and a proposed solution to address the poverty in this chosen community.

Day 5 (45-50 minutes):

  • Class will immediately start with students’ final project presentations.
  • If time, ask students to name one interesting thing they learned through this curriculum before ending class.

Additional Sources

Beagle, Peter S. “The Poor People’s Campaign.” Creative Nonfiction, no. 15 (2000): 236-59.

Jackson, Thomas F, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,. From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Politics and Culture in Modern America. Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

MacKnight, Gerald D. The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor      People’s Campaign. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.

Messman, Terry. “The Poor People’s Campaign: Non-Violent Insurrection for Economic Justice.” Race, Poverty & the Environment 14, no. 1 (2007): 30-32.

Wright, Amy Nathan. “Civil Rights “unfinished Business”: Poverty, Race, and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.” (University of Texas at Austin, 2007).


[1] Wright, Amy Nathan. “Civil Rights “unfinished Business”: Poverty, Race, and the 1968 Poor People’s  Campaign.” (University of Texas at Austin, 2007).

[2] The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. (accessed March 23, 2019).

[3] MacKnight, Gerald D. The Last Crusade: Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, and the Poor People’s Campaign. Boulder: Westview Press, 1998.

[4] Bishop, Jim. The Days of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1971.

[5] Wright, Amy Nathan. “Civil Rights “unfinished Business”: Poverty, Race, and the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign.” (University of Texas at Austin, 2007).26