The Great Society versus the Poor People’s Campaign

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin
Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room, 18 March 1966. Credit: Yoichi Okamoto (Public Domain), via Wikimedia

dramatic scene is unfolding this month in Washington, D.C. Angry activists
march and chant outside the White House demanding an end to the violence that’s
killing America’s youth. Politicians squabble and point fingers, assigning
blame and deepening divisions. A chasm has opened within the Democratic Party,
exposing the disconnect between wealthy, white party elites and the hardships
faced by poor people in small-town America.

story is not, however, about high schoolers pressuring for gun reform or
Congressional deadlock on passing the national budget. It’s the story of The
Great Society
, a theatrical performance which premiered at The Arena
Stage in Washington in February 2018. The play tells of President Lyndon Johnson’s
vision of poverty
through massive government programs aimed at improving access to
basic needs like education and health care, and the interplay between Johnson’s
efforts and the struggles of civil rights leaders for racial and economic

by Robert Schenkkan and directed
by Kyle
, the play explores how, as the Vietnam War escalated, Johnson felt
forced to divert funding from anti-poverty programs to the war effort, as
protesters demonstrated outside the White House in outrage at the killing of young
Americans for a seemingly-endless conflict.

While Johnson’s
vision of “The Great Society” was initially supported
by Martin Luther King Jr
. and other civil rights leaders, it was later
denounced as top-down and out of touch with the realities that faced the
American poor. This eventually led King to declare a different approach to
addressing economic inequality by announcing a “Poor
People’s Campaign”
led by the poor themselves. He was assassinated shortly
thereafter, and the Campaign is often regarded as a major unfinished part of
King’s work.

play could not have opened at a more opportune moment. Indeed, much of the
drama on the Arena Stage can be seen unfolding in US politics today. The show
depicts the growing sense of anger and urgency that was felt among youth
activists and organizers as the corruption and in-fighting surrounding the
Great Society prevented funds from reaching people in need.

This is
mirrored today in the explosion of grassroots organizing around injustice and
inequality that’s taking place across the country, including the youth-led
around gun violence that captured national attention during
February 2018. It also coincides with the re-launch
of King’s Poor People’s Campaign
, led by Reverends William
J. Barber
and Liz Theoharis,
which re-traces King’s steps through communities across the country and is gearing
up for 40 days of mass civil disobedience in May.

the reasons behind the failure of Johnson’s Great Society and how King’s Poor
People’s Campaign embodied a different vision provides important historical
context that is often omitted from the narrative surrounding the Civil Rights
Movement. It also puts the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign into
perspective, illuminating the ways in which today’s grassroots organizing both follows
in the footsteps of the past and tries to overcome some of the challenges that
social movements have faced.

Understanding the split between Johnson and King’s
approaches to inequality.

When President
Johnson originally proposed the idea of the Great Society, King welcomed it—he was
excited about the idea of uplifting the poor, and saw poverty as a crucial
issue underlying racial inequality in the United States. In pursuit of this
vision, Johnson sought to wage a “War on Poverty” by passing the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act,
and Medicaid
, and the Voting
Rights Act
of 1965.

Yet in
February of that year Johnson initiated airstrikes
on Vietnam
, enlarging America’s military presence in the country and
diverting billions of dollars away from anti-poverty programs. Even before this
diversion, King saw that the Great Society espoused an inherent contradiction—reliant
as it was on powerful, predominantly white lawmakers devising solutions.
Eradicating economic inequality would threaten the power of wealthy elites, but
those elites were the same people charged with devising the programs. King
became more critical of the broader economic system itself, and how capitalism
creates and upholds the structures of inequality.

example of the Great Society’s flawed programs is embodied in its approach to
education through the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose
resources were largely diverted to wealthy, white suburbs and not the inner
cities that were in greatest need. Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, a
prominent figure in the Democratic Party at the time, received substantial
funding from the Johnson administration for poverty reduction but focused the money
on white government workers in the city who were Daley’s political supporters,
with no real benefits reaching the urban poor. Chicago Superintendent Benjamin
Willis was accused
of earmarking
some of the $32 million for non-poor white children rather
than the children of the poor.

Robert Kennedy was
critical of the local implementation of poverty reduction through the Great
Society program, and he was not alone. Riots and demonstrations erupted around
the country as people demanded economic opportunities for survival. In the
summer of 1965, a riot broke out in Watts,
. King spoke at the rally before it turned hostile. A man in the
audience shouted
at him
, “All we want is jobs! We get jobs, we don’t bother nobody. We don’t
get no jobs, we’ll tear up Los Angeles, period.”

feelings spread across urban America. While Johnson denounced the riots and
supported the imposition of ‘law and order’ by police, King was confronted with
the reality of economic hardship that was pushing people to the brink. He began
to criticize Johnson’s approach to poverty reduction and the war in Vietnam,
and started to develop an understanding which united the “Triple Evils” of poverty,
racism and militarism—a trio he articulated in his speech at the Riverside
in Manhattan on April 4 1967. 

“I knew
that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in
rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw
men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube,” King
said in his speech, “So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy
of the poor and to attack it as such.”

Inspiring the contemporary Poor People’s Campaign.

Much of
King’s vision for a movement that was led by the poor, for the poor is embodied
in the contemporary revival of the Poor People’s Campaign. The problems that
emerged in the split between Johnson and King—including political corruption, the
draining of domestic resources for social services by militarism, and divisions
within the Democratic Party’s leadership—are just as relevant today.

The current
Campaign focuses on four central issues: racism, poverty, the war economy and
ecological devastation, three of which King focused on during the original
movement. But it’s not only ideological similarities that tie the two Campaigns
together. Reverend Barber is retracing the same route that King took through
impoverished communities, holding “barnstorming”
along the way to hear people’s personal stories and spread the word
about joining the movement.

In a
single day in March 1968, King barnstormed the state of Mississippi, traveling
from small impoverished towns to Hattiesburg. Rev. Barber’s barnstorming drew
even larger numbers than King did. King spoke to a crowd of 600 people in
Chapel Hill, but only two signed up for the journey to Washington. In October
2017, hundreds of people volunteered to risk arrest after Barber’s barnstorm
event in Binghamton, New York.

February 12, 2018, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign marched with fast food
workers in the $15Now movement in Memphis, Tennessee. Marchers walked the same
route taken by workers in the 1968
sanitation worker strike
, when 1,300 people walked off their jobs demanding
the right to join a union, higher safety standards and a living wage. For the
50th anniversary of the strike, a crowd of low-income, non-unionized
workers led clergy, union workers and allies, while sanitation workers who had
been part of the 1968 strike spoke to the crowd alongside fast food workers
demanding changes in the racism and poverty that plague Memphis to this day.

several ways, the Poor People’s Campaign of today is poised to overcome some of
the challenges that stifled the movement fifty years ago. One key difference is
the dispersal of power to state and local chapters. When King organized the
campaign in 1968, staff at the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference (SCLC)
were tasked with organizing most of the logistical
details, including the planning of caravans to travel simultaneously across the
country to Washington. Today’s movement incorporates more decentralized local branches
of organizers, and embodies a more horizontal leadership structure behind the

course, the contemporary campaign has the advantage of being a product of a
longer history, one in which King’s personal transformation in how best to
combat poverty eventually led to the grassroots mobilization which is mirrored
around the United States today. King’s journey to launch the original Poor
People’s Campaign—illustrated through the arc of his relationship with President
Johnson and the Great Society—tells an important story about the power of local
organizing in comparison to a top-down policy approach to social change. It
also shows how grassroots movements respond to shifting circumstances like
escalating tensions, public outrage and political deadlock by shifting leaders
away from an ineffective establishment.

2018, the Poor People’s Campaign holds the potential to pick up where King’s left
off by addressing many of the same problems he faced in the 1960s—while elevating
the voices of the poor across the country through mass mobilization for
systemic change.