Trouble in the Poor People's Campaign

WASHINGTON, D.C.--There is something about pluralism that leaves some people out. The poor have been left out of American political and economic life mainly because they have never had the resources to play the game.

It had always been the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision to build a strong pressure group out of the poor of the country, strong enough to compete with the interests that run the nation now. His idea was to bring that rag-tag pressure group to Washington, to somehow "pressure" Congress into recognizing poverty as a problem and more important, into recognizing poor people as a political force.

Behind the demands for 30 to 50 billion dollars in programs for the poor lies this purpose--to bring poor people into the system. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller called the Poor People's Campaign "a kind of lobbying."

It is lobbying for people who have never had a lobby. It is an experiment and a discovery. But so far, after a week and a half in West Potomac Park, it has also been a failure. And it has failed for ancient reasons. The campaign simply lacks the money, the leadership, and the talent to play the game, and few people in Washington are going to help it play.

It is unfortunate that no one wants to help, because the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy (a man as dry and heavy as his name) has been saying over and over that the campaign is some sort of last chance before something bad happens. And he is right. It is the first and the last chance for the poor to enter the market, and if they are kept out this spring, they will probably reject that market entirely. Right now, the campaign is in chaos.

No Food

Late last week, Southern Christian Leadership Conference staff members revealed that the campaign was in serious financial trouble. It lacked food and adequate housing for the people already in Washington and the leaders were issuing holding orders for those already on the road.

SCLC needs no less than $3 million to survive through the middle of June. Right now, the only hope for getting this money is a massive march on Memorial Day that may bring hundreds of thousands of people (and dollars) into Washington to support the campaign.

Leadership is a definite problem too. Abernathy has been on the road almost constantly since the campaign reached Washington. In charge at Resurrection City is the Rev. James Bevel, a bright man, but hardly an inspiring leader.

While Abernathy was calming congressional sympathizers last Wednesday, Bevel, in contrast, was giving reporters a hard line at a press conference. Abernathy himself has been vacillating. No one knows whether he is "hard" or "soft." He seems to change his mind daily.

The original tactic of keeping demands vague has caused trouble in the ranks. The poor people at Resurrection City have very little idea what their leaders are after, and they are left with a feeling of confusion and a lack of direction. Many came to Washington to escape poverty at home. "I came here because things are better," a woman from Lebanon, Miss., told me. Many expect to stay permanently. But so far, life in the plywood A-frame shelters has hardly been uplifting--materially or spiritually. It is uncomfortable and boring. People are going home. The Washington Star said that 50 had left by the fourth day.

Dropping By

If there is inspiration, it comes in small doses. The predominant theme is "dropping by to see how things are going." So far the players have included: Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, Stokely Carmichael, Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), and New York Mayor John Lindsay. The personality types tour the camp, shake hands, smile broadly, and leave. That's all.

The reaction of Congress to the campaign has been pretty much as expected. Congress does not like "blackmail," and that phrase is loaded with racial overtones.

I.F. Stone wrote last week, "To see the Poor People's March on Washington in perspective, remember that the rich have been marching on Washington ever since the beginning of the Republic. . . . They don't have to put up in shanties. The object is the same but few respectable people are untactful enough to call it handouts."